By Ryan Skinner (email)
This is the first part of a five-part series that studies the impact that software is having on the commercial shipping industry. The series will feature a major shipowner (Wilhelmsen Lines), a major supplier (Wärtsilä), a coalition under the aegis of the Norwegian Shipowners' Association, a Maltese centre of excellence (MARSEC-XL) and a major auto manufacturer coalition (AUTOSAR).
What's at issue? What's the cost? Who does this affect? What are the solutions? Who's involved in trying to solve them? All of these questions will be addressed in the series. These pieces will be cross-published in Lloyd's List. Join the discussion with comments to this series of posts! Now here's the series:
General Manager Knut L. Arnesen of Wilhelmsen Lines Malta shares some of his company's recent frustration with components onboard their ships: "We need to reduce our emissions, but - to do that - we need to be able to make a consolidated picture of what's going on in the ship. Then we can modify and measure; basically: run iterations. But it's been a maddening process to get all the data from component suppliers into a common format," said Arnesen.
It's a common and increasing complaint. Technology is coming to ships so quickly and in so piecemeal a fashion that it is creating a threat both to profits and safety. Commissioning problems and delays with newbuildings coming out of the shipyard, human error issues on the bridge and painful software decisions in refits are often related to a lack of software integration in ships' equipment.
A quick description of what is meant by software integration: At the heart of every automated component is a piece of software code, often a very large piece. Unless the software from different automated components is organized into a common framework, those components won't work well together and data from one will be unavailable to the other. That's Wilhelmsen's and Arnesen's quandary.
The answer is to organize software into a framework that is shared - in other words, a common architecture for shipboard components' software. This has so far been missing from the shipping industry, and its absence is starting to make itself felt. Arnesen confirms that interoperability challenges are costly, and getting worse as ships grow increasingly sophisticated.
Yet the process of arriving at the kind of shared framework that allows shipboard systems to communicate easily to one another can be a long and painful one for the industry. Why? It challenges the business models, and by extension the livelihoods, of many suppliers, as well as the organizational power of a fragmented shipping industry.
In the next instalment, we see how the automotive industry solved its serious software integration problems - a model for shipping?