Commercial pressures are preventing the better integration of control and automation systems that could help identify root causes of equipment failures
One of the many benefits of increasing digitalisation in shipping is the potential if offers for improved detection of faults. But according to Hoglund Marine Solutions CEO Børge Nogva, it is more often the case that poor integration between onboard systems prevents a coherent approach to investigating the underlying causes of incidents.
“Installed automation and control systems are usually not connected, or the interfaces are simplistic,” he says. “The various electronic systems themselves are also lacking key features for logging of data and the ability to store them for later analysis.”
Responding to Marine Propulsion’s recent article (‘Shipping’s approach to faulty design is broken’, 13 February 2019), Mr Nogva explains what he sees as the problem. The specifications that shipowners provide to ship designers often touch only superficially on control systems and integration requirements. Without specifications for connections and the definition of valuable outputs, shipyards have little incentive to go beyond these limited requirements.
“We do see evidence of evasive behaviour. Some people are afraid that the real causes of incidents will be laid bare,” he says. “Even when shipowners understand the issues and the upside it can be hard to make them follow through when the shipbuilding contract is being negotiated.”
Suppliers of mechanical systems including engines, propulsion, scrubbers, valves and pumps often deliver their own controls, creating a complex onboard network. Mr Nogva argues that suppliers should relinquish their own control systems or adhere to onerous requirements for how these systems are connected to each other.
“Shipowners should hold suppliers responsible for the safe and cost-effective operation of the ship by introducing clear demands about how onboard ship systems work”
A lack of specification and subsequent poor integration also limits the potential advantages of holistic design and propulsion packages provided by big marine technology companies.
“Shipowners should hold suppliers responsible for the safe and cost-effective operation of the ship by introducing clear demands about how onboard ship systems work, individually and overall,” he says.
It is not just a problem for suppliers, shipyards and naval architects. Shipowners would need to train their crew better too, as well as educating management on land about the better use of integrated systems. Mr Nogva suggests that simulators could be deployed to this effect.
“With the existing skill level of crew, many ships could not implement even the simplest of such systems,” he says. “The crew will not touch them and will be afraid of the consequences if they do.”
Alongside all these challenges comes the clearest commercial obstacle: the cost of the systems. The growing demand for reporting and documentation - of fuel consumption, emissions and efficiency among other factors - as well as the need to manage vessels better, will bring increasing numbers of individual systems onto ships. This proliferation of hardware and software is already making life difficult for some owners and, says Mr Nogva, lifetime costs are high as these elements often need to be replaced after a few years.
“No wonder that many owners today are hesitating to build more ships, hoping they can squeeze the most out of what they have,” he says. “But when faced with the bill for retrofitting equipment and uncertainty about which technologies to go for, they are forced to decide sooner or later.”
Looking to the future, shipowners will need a clearer view of what they can expect from ships’ systems, says Mr Nogva. That, he believes, means asking more from ship designers, class societies, regulators and shipyards. It is a holistic approach that has been lacking to date, but could be the key to unlocking big improvements in safety and reliability.