Engineering at Sea: Last time round, we briefly touched on the topic of digitization in the marine industry. What do you see as the next step?
David Johansson: There’s no doubt about it: digitization is well underway. But what’s holding us back is the complexity of current systems and the distribution of data. Chief engineers and many other crewmembers have been overloaded with tasks in recent years, with more and more parallel systems on board. What we need is simplification—the consolidation of multiple sources into intuitive dashboards. This will make it easier to keep track of everything and draw useful information from the available data.
So it’s about making use of big data?
Exactly. In other industries, we’ve already seen how big data gives businesses the competitive edge. The marine industry now needs to find a way to exploit its potential. We’re still at a stage where Internet speeds vary significantly from ship to ship and from region to region. Communication is key, and we need to make it more reliable.
What is the industry doing to address this need?
At the moment, the trend is moving towards cloud connectivity. This gives crews a reliable and secure way of accessing and sharing information. For example, using cloud-based solutions, a ship can share raw data with onshore personnel in remote diagnostics centers. These experts can then analyze the data and send detailed condition reports and maintenance recommendations back to the crew. With these insights, the chief engineer is in a better position to plan maintenance in the most efficient way and prevent downtime.
Are there any products on the market that support this approach?
Yes there are. For example, SKF has launched the Multilog Online System IMx-8, which supports condition monitoring for critical machinery such as thrusters. This can be combined with a mobile app so technicians can track condition data live. There is also the SKF Enlight Centre, a platform that takes data from handheld monitoring devices and uploads them to the cloud for onshore anaylsis.
What other trends might we see in the coming years?
Well, in light of ever-stricter regulations, I expect we’ll see new environmentally friendly technology. This could include advanced emissions monitoring solutions to help captains provide evidence that they are operating according to all applicable standards. But we will also see a shift in the fuels used. I think there will be much more diversity in five years’ time, with greener fuels like hydrogen, LNG, and methanol soaring in popularity. Electric propulsion with batteries and fuel cells could also be a possibility, but this is a long way off at present.
And, last but not least, what do you think about autonomous ships? What effect might they have on the industry?
Believe it or not, we will probably see the first unmanned vessels in as little as three to five years. In fact, an order has already been placed for the world’s first fully automated ship. But it will be a while before the trend really takes off. It’s similar to driverless cars: the technology is there today, but the regulations need to catch up.
And in terms of the effects, ships could be made lighter and more fuel-efficient without crew quarters and heating, for example. When fully autonomous ships do finally arrive, some jobs would inevitably shift to onshore, with more demand at shipyards or ship command centers. In any case, this trend could have a profound impact on shipping for years to come.