Managing ships in a digital future

At a recent round table, attended by Tanker Operator, it was said that there will be fundamental changes in the way vessels are managed and in the skill sets of seafarers going forward, due to the advance of digitalisation.

We asked leading shipmanagement companies for their opinions on how this ever changing world will map out.

First, we approached Capt Kuba Szymanski, InterManager secretary general, who said that he was not absolutely sure there will be fundamental changes in the way ships are managed in the future.

“Shipping is extremely slow to embrace untested and unproven technology. Please don’t make me believe that we have digitalisation tamed already. I am just standing in front of the hotel here in Palm Springs and ....cannot call taxi because ....there is no mobile phone signal. Can you believe that?

“Also please show me a good computer model, which will be able to help a weather forecaster to predict the weather four days in advance! There is a lot of hype, which might be okay for the leisure market when people can afford failure but not in such a robust and reliable industry as shipping,” he said.

He continued by pointing out that statistics are telling us the real story – less than 2% of ships are running performance-based maintenance. The reason - manufacturers themselves don’t believe they have achieved standards that they can rely on.

”We are closely monitoring development and InterManager members are trying to engage technology developers, but we are struggling, as they rarely want to listen.

“Look at AIS – an otherwise great invention but is it cyber secure? How about ECDIS – is this equipment cyber proof? So let’s come down to earth, or maybe better sea level, and start working together where people called seafarers could actually help technologists in changing this shipping world,” he advised.

Some believe that so called ‘smart management’, teamwork with a more balanced highly skilled workforce is the way ahead with an organisational rethink resulting from digitalisation. Could this change the more traditional third party shipmanagement operation?

Capt Szymanski answered; “I believe that third party shipmanagement on its own revolutionised the industry. It allowed owners to march ahead at an unprecedented pace. Teamwork is essential indeed, but we believe that a paradigm shift is on the horizon and it is forced upon us, not by technology, but by politicians who vote for new regulations. I am not talking about MLC, BWMC or sulfur cap but about tax regulations, which make shore based jobs pretty unattractive for seafarers.

”We need to work together to change this trend or to allow ships to be managed from sea not from shore. I bet my money that the most advanced shipmanagement companies will shortly move superintendent jobs back to the Chief Engineers on board and will reduce the shore office to the role of co-ordinator/ facilitator.

“This is, in my opinion, the future of ship management,” he stressed.

Data analysis

Turning to how the considerable increase in data streams from a ship will be analysed and what companies hope to get out of it, he said: “By using smart computers and algorithms created with close collaboration from the end users. Not prepared FOR them but BY or WITH them.”

As for the advance of performance based measurement monitoring, Capt Szymanski said that he had heard this story for the past 20 years and it yet has to come.

“Look at the Virtual Arrival concept or Shipping KPIs – excellent concepts - which are not being widely used because people don’t want to change their habits. The technology is already there at this level but we cannot persuade cargo owners and other customers to use it. Reason? Nowadays the word trust is not very fashionable,” he said.

He agreed that predictive maintenance on the back of digitalisation will save opex, saying, “No doubt but you need two to tango. Manufacturers of the equipment need to start playing ball too.”

As for seafarer skill sets possibly changing to a more digital, artificial intelligence (AI) led environment, he asked the industry not to use the AI argument where common sense is not being used first.

“Why do we still ask the most expensive people on board – ship’s Masters – to run excel sheets every month while preparing the payroll and victualling accounts? Why are we still asking ships to produce 50 forms for every port call?

“The technology is here already but ports and authorities don’t want to change, they don’t trust anyone with technology which has not been done by themselves. Do you want a reality check – please refer to the European Single Window fiasco – it will be 10 years soon since the concept was created and four years this coming July since it became compulsory for all EU countries.

“Show me one port in Europe where a ship could send standardised, digital arrival documents to ONE e-mail address – or, maybe better, where it could be uploaded and then used by ALL users in one port!” he explained.

”As long as the police, customs, immigration, port authorities etc do not work together, we will be requested to provide port specific and, actually, very often department specific papers,” he added.

At the round table, it was mentioned that attitudes to work and life are and will change rapidly going forward and Tanker Operator wondered how companies would cope with this.

He gave rather a robust answer saying, “Is this a question or a statement. Do you expect a different view? Or maybe this is already this new attitude towards other humans? You are telling us what you believe and expect us to follow.

“Let me pose a question? Why change something which is better than proposed change? For the sake of change? Why do we all believe that NEW is better?

”I am all for development and change but only when change is for the better and not just for change. I am not happy with issuing a new software update only to find out that it does not work and it needs upgrading, that it has not taken into account all stakeholders. I am extremely unhappy about changes which create more work and frustrate people – users who are allegedly waiting for improvement,” he explained.


It was also stressed that training needs to follow this trend to produce the next generation of engineers and naval architects and of course seafarers. Will training fundamentally change in the future? We asked.

Capt Szymanski said that we can see this change happening already. However he thought it was changing for all the wrong reasons.

“We need to pause and re-think,” he said. “What do we want to achieve? Currently training is extremely reactive, we are trying to catch up and that means we will always be ‘behind’ the development. That probably means we need to start paying attention to different skills. That is extremely difficult in our seafaring profession as we combine a lot of skills, hands-on included.”

Tanker Operator then posed the question - Do you think we should include a career path in shipping digitalisation and autonomy to attract people into the industry going forward? Are we looking far enough ahead?

He answered; “We don’t seem to have a problem attracting young people. Please don’t believe this fake news. We have plenty of seafarers waiting for their vessels. Their problem is that they need to be fairly paid, like anybody else. It is not digitalisation or autonomy which will continue to excite people to go to sea but resilience, reliability, trust and pride in doing something difficult and challenging.”

There has been criticisms of STCW of late, especially as it doesn’t cover digitalisation. We asked whether it was time for a change.

Capt Szymanski basically agreed saying, “ ...but not only for digitalisation but for many other reasons too. There was plethora of new regulations recently introduced and STCW is yet to catch up with them.”

As for the IMO addressing these points, he said; “Ultimately yes but maybe, just maybe, we should start thinking holistically with a bigger picture in mind. Presently we keep patching the world.”

Commenting on training being at the heart of this and thus creating great opportunities for academies worldwide, both independent and in-house, ie attached to shipmanagement companies, he said; “Good training establishments work very closely with their customers.

“They have realised that in order to stay competitive they need to act quickly. It also applies to shipmanagement and crew management companies.

“Our members heavily rely on maritime professionals and these have to be trained to the highest standards to ensure that our businesses thrive. I do see better collaboration on the horizon indeed,” he concluded.






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