Shipping: The Next Generation

December 14, 2018 12:35 pm

This year is proving to be a pivotal one for the concepts surrounding digitalisation in shipping. At the big trade shows, Posidonia and SMM, there have been so many new aspects of the maritime industry to consider. What though, does that mean for the training departments in shipping companies?


Perhaps one of the most fundamental issues to emerge from all the talk of “industry 4.0”, and shipping’s role in it, has been a new language. There are so many new buzzwords to consider, and at least pretend to understand.

From autonomous ships to Generation Z, via blockchain, cybersecurity, digitalisation and a whole slew of new terms. There is so much to wrestle with as shipping changes. However, the industry does not exist in a vacuum, and the evolution has to be set in terms of the wider supply chain and logistics arena.

One of the dangers of rapid change is that it can leave some people and companies behind. Indeed, it can be a lot to take in as shipping struggles to adapt to incoming new fuel regulations, as well as the usual problems of getting cargoes safely moved over oceans.

This can be especially challenging when it comes to seafarers and the human face of shipping. It is one thing to tweak an engine or to find a new bunker supplier. It is another thing altogether to try and change the way our crews are managed, supported and trained.


There seems to be an increasing acceptance that at some point in the future we may well see autonomous ships. There is, however, very little agreement on quite when that might be. Some think it’s tomorrow, while the more prosaic maritime professionals see it far into the future.

Progress thus far has been rapid, and there are vessels already capable of doing all the things that the academics and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe they should. One only has to follow the progress of the vessel, “Yara Birkeland” to know how far the autonomous project has come.

This amazing vessel is set to operate autonomously by 2020, and along with having zero people onboard, it will also produce zero emissions. This is the future right here, almost right now. However, even though this is the shining light of new shipping there is still a long, long way to go.

Classification Societies are getting very excited about all this. At SMM, DNV GL announced the release of a class guideline for autonomous and remotely operated vessels, which is all set to be trialed on Yara Birkeland. These guidelines cover navigation, vessel engineering, remote control centres, and communications, with particular emphasis given to cyber-security and software testing.


As far as Class is concerned, all this is aimed at helping owners seeking to implement new technologies with a process toward obtaining flag State alternative design requirements.

While from a build perspective, the new technology guidelines can also be used to obtain an approval in principle by suppliers. They also have a commercial element, as the forward-thinking shipowner can seek support from shippers and cargo owners.

Suddenly, it seems that we are in a strange place. There is technology which can do incredible things, there are rules in place to seemingly govern the incredible things, and there is a push to make it all acceptable and desirable.

For a conservative industry like shipping, this could seemingly be a case of too much too soon. If one looks at the moves from wooden ships to steel, from sail to steam, even these seemingly obvious steps were not accepted wholesale or wholeheartedly.


Quite whether the autonomous solution will be leapt upon so readily, or as hungrily as technology companies or futurologists think is another matter. What is it that we are actually talking about?

Well, Industry 4.0 is the name given to the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing.

This “fourth industrial revolution”, fosters what has been called a “smart factory”. Within modular structured smart factories, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions.

Over the Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans in real-time both internally and across organisational services offered and used by participants of the value chain. The assumption, and it is a big one, is that having smart factories requires a smart supply chain, which requires smart ports and smart ships.


In the journey towards this industrial utopia can see the joined-up thinking, and there is a huge degree of sense to it all. If the outputs needed are automated and driven by data, then it seems sensible that all parts of the chain are too. So far, so smart.

However, as with most things, that vision of a fully formed and seamless industrial chain is not all it seems. Yes, there may well be a future where all parts of the process are autonomous – from mines to trains and trucks, to ports, to ships, to factories, to suppliers, and onto consumers.

The problem remains, that unlike the closed confines of a mine, train line, port or factory, or even a retail outlet. Ships are the open loop in the closed domain. They face the real world, they are out there in the weather, they are faced with distances perhaps unimaginable to even the smartest robot. Then there comes the small matter of legality and insurance.

It has been said that ships float on water, but the shipping industry floats on risk, how that is managed, and how rewards are earned. So, suddenly there is a potential problem in this industrial nirvana. One that is perhaps being ignored or overlooked, and that is the human face of shipping.


Since the first humans ventured out to sea there has been a common calculation, will the rewards match or exceed the risks? Of course, we have managed to create very sophisticated mechanisms for transferring risk. Indeed, insurance has done so much to make the pursuit of the maritime adventure palatable.

Autonomous ships within a smart global industry are coming, but there is a lot to overcome before that happens. DNV GL claims that increased automation, whether in the form of decision support, remote operation, or autonomy, has the potential to improve the safety, efficiency and environmental performance of shipping. However, seafarers are still very much part of the fabric of shipping and will continue to be for years to come.

Which may well be true, but even before that there is a way today or ensuring that shipping is ready to face the challenges and pressures which exist currently. A key part of that is about ensuring the standards we have today are being applied and complied with.

That means having a crew who are skilled, training and knowledgeable. For all the change which is coming, we cannot overlook or ignore the needs to manage today. In our Performance Manager and competency assessment tools and systems, we at KVH Videotel see we are helping shipping companies to see the future, but in a scope and scale which is manageable, pragmatic and sensible.