Addressing the automation challenge

17 Feb 2017
Sirius Shipping oil and chemical tanker 'Olympus' is one of two ships refitted with Høglund automation systems last year

Sirius Shipping oil and chemical tanker 'Olympus' is one of two ships refitted with Høglund automation systems last year

Automation systems can be a major boost to efficiency but are too often an afterthought for designers, owners and shipyards, Børge Nogva, CEO of Høglund Marine Automation, tells The Motorship.

Shipping is no longer a predominantly mechanical operation. From power management to cargo handling right through to navigation, the actions of a modern ship crew on ship engines and machinery are more often than not mediated through some kind of automation system. So what happens when this link between crew and machinery fails?

The results can be both costly and damaging. In one well publicised incident in 2005 the Hapag-Lloyd vessel Savannah Express collided with a linkspan at Southampton Docks after crew failed to diagnose an engine failure because they were unfamiliar with electronically-controlled engines.

Less acute automation issues, far beyond the main engine, can be equally inconvenient. Last year family owned tanker and gas carrier manager Sirius Shipping completed the replacement of ten-year old automation systems on oil and chemical tankers Olympus and Tellus. The vessels had been built with the most complex automation in the Sirius fleet, featuring connected systems for cargo handling and loading (among other functions) while other Sirius ships housed separate systems. But while the duo should have been among the most efficient in the fleet, they were rapidly becoming the most problematic.

Difficulties ranged from being minor to mission critical. Engineers frequently had to be called out to the vessels, sometimes requiring software updates onsite in onshore offices as well. The effect on the company’s business was tangible. The downtime required to host engineers meant delayed voyages, which in turn created difficulties with clients, who required delays of even a few hours to be reported and explained.

Stefan Johansson, technical superintendent at Sirius Shipping notes: “Changing an entire automation system is not an easy matter – it can be very costly, and for this reason most ships retain the same automation throughout their lifetime, even if it is unsatisfactory.”


How does a conscientious ship owner become encumbered with a sub-optimal automation system from the very beginning? For many ship owners, automation is a long way down the list of concerns, and many are happy to simply use the systems that sold as part of a bundle with propulsion systems and other machinery. According to Børge Nogva, CEO of Høglund Marine Automation – the company charged with fitting a new integrated automation system on Sirius’ ships – shipowners and shipyards can avoid such issues by applying a greater focus on automation in the early stages of a newbuild project.

Børge Nogva: Automation must be a factor earlier in the ship design process to avoid complications 

Nogva (pictured) explains: “Often ship designers come up with a vessel proposal that can fulfil the owners requirements for cargo, speed and so on, while automation comes so far down the specifications that hardly anything is written about it. This is because ship designers in general have very low knowledge of both electronics and automation.

“When ship owners are tendering, they should have a chapter at the start of the specifications document that outlines the requirements for any kind of software and control systems. In a specification ordinarily there is a summary before the main chapters. In the same way as this summary lays the foundation of things like cargo load, speed, machinery and fuel, it should also have a few lines on what the owner expects when it comes to automation and controls.

“Then when the shipyards go out and ask suppliers for offers, so they can put the price together, this will be an important issue. It will show that the ship owner will not allow the yard and suppliers to install whatever they want, but will look very closely at what is installed.”

Without this focus, ship owners can find themselves in a similar situation to Sirius, holding a relatively young ship in need of a major automation overhaul. And given the lack of forethought, the technical challenges and costs associated with retrofitting can be steep.

Sirius was prepared to invest in its systems though, engaging Høglund to install a new integrated automation system with cargo control; power management system; ship performance monitor; GMR playback (recording five months’ of per-second signals from every sensor); and remote control enabling Høglund to provide service and support.


“Høglund offered to complete the operation, estimated to take two weeks, in a single week,” recalls Johansson. “Despite scepticism from the shipyard and others over this timeframe, the operation was completed as a turn-key delivery in eight days. This was vital, as we had a very short dry-docking window.”

The reported results from Sirius underline the importance of getting automation right first time. As well as reliability benefits, both ships’ automation systems are now secured for the next ten years, over which time maintenance is expected to be much more straightforward. This should last for the rest of the oil and chemical tankers’ operational lifespans, typically twenty years in total.

The power management systems are reported to be much more reliable, and enable operations such as discharging to run more efficiently. The new systems have also enhanced fuel efficiency, enabling the ships to run on two engines rather than three in certain conditions.

Sirius Shipping was also impressed with the alarm logging system, highlighting the number of inputs that can be recorded and the length of time that monitoring can go on for. The computers installed also enabled a new level of visibility into the ship’s systems, while ensuring that hardware matched the quality of the automation systems further contributed to reliability.

“The crucial factor here was the trust that Høglund had built up through its service-minded approach. This fast installation was achieved thanks to the knowledge, professionalism and expertise of the members of the team. Since the retrofit, Høglund’s engineers have been in regular contact to ensure that the systems are working as planned,” concluded Johansson.

While the project was a success for Sirius, it is clear that it would not have been needed if proper attention was given to automation when the ships were originally being built. Again, the answer comes down to knowing what owners need at an early stage.

“Owners should think about what they are specifying on their ship, and to what degree is it really integrated,” says Nogva. “They can experience a lot of problems from systems that are connected, but not integrated - where various systems operate with their own hardware and software. First you need engineers from each supplier to make the installation. Then if a system fails and other systems are influenced by it, you have to wait for the supplier of the faulty system to do the repair before anything can get moving again. There are a whole range of challenges.”

To avoid those challenges, Høglund has prepared a checklist that it suggests ship owners use when they consult with ship designers, before shipyards tender for equipment. Nogva highlights the key points below.

Removing old input/output modules during the 'Olympus' retrofit 


“All hardware related to any control and automation systems should be available for 15 years. The Sirius vessel was 10 years’ old and was a mess; you haven’t got as much out of that vessel as you would like before re-investing.

“You have hardware related to computers and monitors, which should obviously be of high quality to withstand the marine environment. Then you have hardware connected to the controls system, such as cabinet components, I/O switches. These should be guaranteed to some extent by the supplier. It is not just that they fail but that they can also become obsolete over the lifecycle of the ship. Some suppliers make their own hardware and decide after a few years that they are out of date. In ten years you can have two or three generations of hardware, and the software that goes with it, presenting a very big challenge to service teams.

“We base our systems on off-the-shelf, commercially available hardware. If Microsoft decides after five years that they want to change their operating system, we can suggest that the owner upgrades their system. But this is not a big cost as the hardware is readily available. If you have more proprietary hardware from a supplier, you might get charged more to upgrade, or even have to change the whole system. Then you are looking at real cost.”


“There is a clear need to have a complete list of all installed software, with back-ups. Often owners have little idea about which software goes into the various hardware procured for their ships. You might look at a simple motor starter cabinet with a programmable logic controller (PLC) that is not working. Nobody knows how to get the software out of it, if they have a back-up or, if they have, how to input it into the hardware again.

“In earlier times these pumps and such were controlled by relays, so if the connector failed you just changed them. Now there is a small device with software inside that no-one knows how to edit anymore. So you need back-up software, and that includes having a device with which you can re-install the software.

“It seems obvious, but you need to think about it at the right moment. This is one of the main topics in our canteen, that owners can allow shipyards to buy equipment without anyone telling them what software goes inside.
“You also need a list of installed software versions, which is definitely not always the case. And there should be a list of all installed hardware along with version and serial numbers. Certain software only fits certain versions.”


“All the PLC’s around the ship have separate batteries to power their memory in the event of a blackout. If those batteries are dead and there is a blackout, when the power comes on again they start up on a default setting. Then you have to reinstall your software and you lose all the saved parameters.

“Each of the controls have been conditioned by a service engineer on the ship, and they will have entered a lot of parameters into the system. This goes for propeller controls, cargo pump controls, all controls. All those parameters should be available onboard in a book or a file. If you have to reset or lose power, you need to know how the vessel was fine-tuned when it was commissioned.”