Digital tools for performance optimisation: a ship operator’s perspective

Digital tools for performance optimisation: a ship operator’s perspective
MOL’s Smart Ship Strategy focusses on creating a safer environment for ships to sail in and developing technologies to reduce environmental impact. Image courtesy of MOL

The shipping industry is transitioning to a more digitalised and connected way of operating, finding new tools and technologies to improve safety and operational efficiency. VPO Global spoke with one ship operator, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) about the company’s approach to safety and environmental responsibility.

The word ‘efficiency’ is regularly heard in the shipping industry as companies discuss cutting fuel consumption and emissions, lowering the cost of operating, and making more time-conscious voyages. New technologies are marketed on the basis that they will make operations ‘smarter’ and more efficient. According to Mr Takeru Suzuki, general manager, Smart Ship Strategy Team at MOL, in order to achieve greater efficiency in any type of operation, you must first define what the term means to you and your company. “For us, it is about first improving safety and then reducing environmental impact,” Mr Suzuki told us.

The Smart Shipping Division of MOL, which includes its Smart Ship Strategy Team, is working to develop, deliver, and share experiences of technologies that push a safe and more environmentally responsible shipping agenda.

The ability to communicate and share information in real-time across vessels and between ship and shore is made possible by new at-sea data capabilities. One area that Mr Suzuki points to is the effect this can have on the safe operation of its ships. “Typically, as an industry, we have relied on the experience of seafarers for safety.” However, varying levels of experience among seafarers will result in different approaches to operating ships and their onboard technologies.

“Some seafarers will have limited experience with specific vessel types and not all seafarers have the same level of experience with different types of technologies.” For MOL, increasing connectivity provides a platform of communication, enabling seafarers with different experiences and captains to share information, gain knowledge on certain scenarios, and ultimately operate a vessel in the safest manner. Furthermore, frequent communication helps to build and cement relationships between shore side personnel and at-sea staff.

The expanding Internet of Things (IoT) is also bringing new opportunities to monitor vessels for better environmental performance. Sensors, which Mr Suzuki describes as “one of our key technologies,” are becoming increasingly intelligent and presenting new capabilities for performance management. Mr Suzuki informed us that MOL is expanding its use of advanced sensor technology to measure internal and external factors, such as wind and wave height, at more in-depth levels than ever before. This is giving the company greater insight into the performance of its vessels and the effect of its operational environment on performance.

Mr Suzuki believes that a shipping company can further enhance vessel performance by deconstructing and breaking down the various factors that may affect the overall performance. The first step is to establish the pure performance of a vessel and its sister ships, then to identify the level to which each individual factor influences vessel performance. “The weather, the vessel age, different degree of fouling, the impact of loading, every little thing that can be broken down we break down to know exactly what the actual performance of each vessel is.”

This is a critical aspect of predictive maintenance, confirmed Mr Suzuki. “If we know the performance of each vessel, we can counteract any bad performance,” he said. “For instance, if we see the performance declining, we can immediately schedule a dry-dock to clean the propeller or carry out some maintenance to improve the performance. To do this we have to first know the actual pure performance of each vessel, so we can take some measures and compare.”

While accurate and reliable sensors are of critical importance in performance monitoring, the real value of data emerges from having a good data scientist to evaluate the data. Advanced machines can collect data, but analysing it is a separate task that they are not quite capable of yet doing.

“Someone needs to make sense of the data,” Mr Suzuki told us. MOL has invested in specialists that are trained to interpret and give valuable feedback on why a vessel is performing the way it is. “We may need to hire such data scientists who are analysts to deliver optimisation of the vessel for the next level. A good data scientist will be able to spot inconsistencies and will have the tools to point out when data should be considered with caution versus when it is more likely to be reliable.”

For shipping companies, this is a core part of performance management. According to a report by Trelleborg[1], ‘only a handful of maritime companies leverage big data.’ Mr Suzuki agrees and believes that, “Shipping companies are not so advanced in the ICT field, so we have to catch up with other industries.” One possible way to do this is to ensure shipping employs good data scientists from other industries to help them turn data into real value.

One of the most widely discussed topics in the shipping industry is the degree of autonomy that ships will operate with in the future. Mr Suzuki believes that the rate at which digital technologies are progressing and the capabilities for performance insight they are giving us will naturally lead to more automated processes onboard vessels. “If we can know the vessel performance by having increased data and insight then we can use as kind of data analysis for autonomous vessel technologies,” he explained.

While Mr Suzuki is confident that in the future ships will be largely made up of autonomous processes, he is not so certain that we will see unmanned vessels out in the open ocean. He believes there is no real need for ships without seafarers but says that developing technologies to ensure intelligent automation of various operations will certainly make shipping safer. This push for more and more automation onboard will start happening rapidly once the technologies become more affordable, he confirmed.

In the meantime, Mr Suzuki says shipowners and operators should start preparing their crews for operating more complex solutions and platforms that will be behind the automated processes. “At the moment, the technologies are still in development and not all seafarers have the skills and training to operate the range of technologies we see growing.” Mr Suzuki believes that this training needs to come first because it is “not down to luck if the vessel operates well.”


Mr Takeru Suzuki is speaking at Digital Ship’s Maritime CIO Forum in Tokyo next week. Find out more here.