Shipping events these days are full of talk about automation and big data, so it is easy to assume that there is a wide gulf between the ideal fleet of the future and the ships being operated and built today. However, it is important to remember that a significant number of processes are already highly automated on the modern tanker fleet. These vessels are full of systems that assist the crew automatically and provide valuable data and feedback on operations.
For example, systems that monitor engine temperature, pressure, fuel levels, viscosity and flow control can be linked via an automation system that manages the whole operation of a vessel’s engine. Other examples of automated processes include propulsion plant operation, auxiliary machinery operation, cargo operation, navigation, and alarm systems management. As these systems communicate and work together they optimise processes: power can be managed more effectively, saving fuel, and alarm systems can be integrated to track performance and give further visibility into a vessel’s operations.
Regardless of whether the future of shipping is manned or unmanned, or how much decision-making power is given over to big data, these kinds of automation systems can deliver significant benefits in terms of reliability and efficiency if they are addressed properly.
Unfortunately, this type of automation has historically been neglected – partially due to its relatively low cost when compared to other systems, but also due to a limited understanding of electrical engineering among naval architects, shipowners, and shipyards. This has resulted in overall standards among maritime automation falling considerably behind those of the automotive and aerospace sectors, to the point where many owners, operators, and crew are familiar with less-than-ideal systems. At the design and procurement stages, the specifications for automation systems are sparse, and often do not involve the level of detail and rigour that would ensure suitable systems were fitted.
At Høglund we see this as unacceptable. Not only are the benefits to automation significant, but if automation is handled incorrectly, it can result in faults that might incur significant time and resources to resolve. These can range from the relatively minor, to ‘mission-critical’ issues.
This matter is too important to rely solely on off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solutions. It is vital that automation suppliers act as collaborative partners when designing and installing systems, and ensure that automation systems deliver value throughout a vessel’s lifetime. One part of this involves finding the optimum level of integration. Many systems currently advertised as ‘integrated’ may simply be composed of separate connected systems, each with hardware and software from separate suppliers.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the optimum level of integration. However, by avoiding disjointed systems and opting for true integration, with hardware and software from the same supplier, shipowners, operators and crew can enjoy significant reliability benefits as they deal with one supplier, with the ability to upgrade and service an entire system.
To reduce costs, Høglund has the ability to analyse 90% of issues remotely and find the root cause of the problem, even when the source may not be our system. This costs far less than physically sending an engineer to a vessel, a practice we only adopt in extreme circumstances.
When tanker owners Ektank and Utkilen announced last October that they had chosen Høglund to fit automation systems on their chemical tanker newbuildings from China, their vision was not that of a crewless environment. Instead, they had chosen to augment their onboard operations with bespoke integrated automation systems, providing better reliability and visibility into the data within their systems.
Those owners and operators who choose to focus on automation are putting themselves in the best position to benefit from whatever technological developments are to come, whether unmanned or manned – both in terms of the efficiencies and reliability issues that can be realised and in terms of the analysis of the valuable data they are collecting.