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Nordic technology steers the connected ship

Technology is transforming the Nordic shipping industry through developments in high-speed internet, data-led decision-making, 3D printing and automation

Nordic companies are lining up to lead the shipping industry's transition into a world of high-speed internet, data-led decision-making, condition monitoring and automation.

Thousands of shipping professionals gathered in Oslo recently for Nor-Shipping, one of the world’s biggest maritime industry conferences. As well as the usual buzz around aerodynamic designs and fuel-efficient technologies, there was a new buzzword on everyone’s lips: the connected ship.

“At Nor-Shipping, everyone was talking about connectivity and digitisation of the industry,” said Bjørn Johan Vartdal, head of Maritime Transport at Oslo-based classification body DNV GL. “Ultimately, these technologies will change the way vessels are built, operated and maintained.”

The connected ship promises a future where sensor technologies and monitoring tools alert management teams both offshore and onshore to potential problems. The same technologies will also power predictive models to enable data-based decision-making and improve asset management.

Safety could and should improve as automation and remote operations reduce the number of people needed to operate heavy machinery in variable weather conditions. Collecting and systematically analysing data from all accidents and near misses will be key to reaching the DNV GL target of a 90% reduction in lives lost.

However, safety is also a factor that is holding back the charge towards the connected ship. The potential for remote operations raises the inevitable questions of data security and possible disaster should a hacker access a vessel’s control systems.

“This is the new big issue to discuss with industry colleagues, so for now the autonomous ship is largely a concept,” said Vartdal. “While we wait for more complete implementations, companies have made big advances in obtaining digital information from ships, which can be transferred to dedicated datacentres on shore.”

Collaborative information management

One of those companies is Kongsberg, the Norwegian industrial technology group. Alongside services such as security and performance monitoring, Kongsberg offers a collaborative information management system called K-IMS.

“Our vision is to empower our customers to make knowledge-based decisions to improve their business,” said Olivier Cadet, vice-president information management systems at Kongsberg Maritime. “We place emphasis on the collaborative aspect because there are a lot of different components and systems on a vessel. 

"The navigation and positioning systems might be from Kongsberg, but other systems will be from other providers. The ability to share and collaborate on data across all suppliers in a secure way is critical for the connected ship to become a reality.

“Ultimately, we want to address specific business problems, such as reducing downtime in an offshore drilling vessel or optimising performance for a merchant fleet. By turning the vast amount of data on a ship into information and then into knowledge, companies have the potential to transform their business.”

Opportunities for Nordic startups

K-IMS comprises three levels. On top of the underlying database sits Kongsberg-created tools, such as system supervision reporting and trend analysis capabilities. The third layer is open to applications, which could potentially create an entire new market for industrial startups. 

Applications for performance-based data dominate are the most common, but the future will be about condition monitoring and condition-based maintenance.

“Our applications include lifecycle management, decision support and performance management, but there are so many opportunities for innovative companies wanting to work with this open platform,” says Vartdal. “Innovation does not only happen within Kongsberg, so we are actively looking to leverage partnerships with universities and startups.”

As the oil industry continues to struggle, some Nordic B2B startups could make the relatively straightforward shift into shipping. Some bigger players are doing just that, says Vartdal.

“Other companies not necessarily linked to maritime are venturing into this space,” he adds. “Companies like Accenture have experience in the digitalisation of other industries. Conceptually, the move towards data-driven analysis is similar, whether it’s a process plant or a vessel. You collect digital data from equipment, transfer it to a datacentre, process and analyse the data, and then interpret it.”

Suppliers such as Wärtsilä and Rolls-Royce are looking at how condition monitoring can be used with their components, while connected technology presents another opportunity for how spare parts are manufactured.

Printing spare parts at sea

Additive manufacturing – essentially an industrialised version of 3D printing – facilitates easy production of spare parts. Potential benefits include optimisation of research and manufacturing at the point of use to condense the supply chain. Today’s industry leaders for this are in the aerospace and medical fields, where doctors use the technology for bespoke implants made for a specific patient.

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Shipping is the next industry set to feel the impact of 3D printing. Maersk is open about its plans to install the technology on its assets to produce spare parts for equipment. The Danish group, one of the world’s biggest container shipping companies, has installed ABS thermoplastic printers on some of its ships and is experimenting with other materials.

The potential cost saving for the industry is huge. Should a Maersk ship suffer a faulty part in the middle of the ocean, engineers at the Copenhagen headquarters can send a design file electronically and a replacement part can be printed on-board and fitted within a few hours.

Yet while additive manufacturing could solve a major problem for shipping, its widespread adoption by other industries could create a new issue for the industry.

“The tipping point for 3D printing is still a few years away, but these new technologies are going to introduce new drivers of growth, which, in turn, will introduce new dynamics for seaborne demand,” said Christopher Rex, head of research at Danish Ship Finance, in a presentation at Nor-Shipping.

“In a world where production currently done in Asia is moved back to North America and Europe, the larger vessels will struggle to fill capacity and demand for smaller container vessels could increase. If 20% of Chinese manufacturing is relocated due to 3D printing, the whole demand outlook for container shipping could shift.”

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