Written by Robert Hansen

Chief Operations Officer at Sea IT with +25 years of experience within the Maritime Sector.

Blog

December 10, 2021

There is a lot of talk about vessel and fleet digitalization these days. Suppliers and shipping companies are announcing new digital solution platforms, and new digital offerings are emerging throughout the maritime industry at an increasing pace. But does the industry fully understand the process of fleet digitalization, and how and why it is done? So what is fleet digitalization, and why should you, as a shipowner or manager care? Could Fleet digitalization be the competitive edge that your shipping company is missing?


Why do shipping companies miss out on the benefits of fleet digitalization?


Integrating and harmonizing the digital tools and systems onboard a vessel can be a challenge. So much so that many companies do not do it at all, usually because of a lack of knowledge from both the IT department and the owners. It is simply a fact that not everyone working with IT will be able to build a digital business structure that serves shipping companies needs. These structures must be reliable at all times, economically sustainable, and – not least – adaptable to suit future needs as well.

So why do so many shipping companies continue to miss out on the benefits of fleet digitalization, and the integration between business and various onboard functions? One major reason is the prevalence of ad hoc solutions, which leave fleets with unnecessarily high operational costs. In terms of digitalization, these ad hoc solutions can even do more harm than good in the long run. Single
solution services often by different providers, prevent the digital evolution that is necessary for companies and their digital services to keep up.


A smart integration of your platforms is both necessary and profitable

Relevant, state-of-the-art applications and excellent operational software are essential to every successful digital environment. Vessel and fleet environments are no different. Going forwards, a smart integration of platforms is therefore not a luxury but a necessity. The need for, and demands, on these kinds of solutions will only grow with time. Given the integrated platforms used by smartphone technology, for example Android and iOS, you could argue that the blueprint for how to run and service a vessel platform is already right in front of us. A key purpose of integrated platforms is to streamline your work. The result is simply greater security, efficiency and stability throughout the entire chain of digital delivery and usage.


Your digital platform should be optimized according to your needs

Your fleet’s IT infrastructure or platform should always be able to incorporate additional functions, but in the sense that it should cater – not adapt – to them. Your infrastructure should not have to change based on the applications or software you are using. Instead, make sure to optimize it to ensure lower operating expenses and quicker deployment functionality.

Many companies in the maritime industry have a history of solving things themselves. That goes for IT and digital solutions too. However, there is no need to reinvent the wheel here. There are more than enough solutions available that you can build a great platform from, thus a platform that caters to your company’s needs both today and in the future.

Companies must not get caught up in single solution box procurement plans. Focusing on parts of a platform as opposed to having a bird’s eye view of one’s technology is simply the wrong approach. What is important is that your boxes are configured according to your needs, and in conjunction with the functions of your IT infrastructure. That way, it will all work as a coherent whole; as one system. Many things can certainly be standardized, but up to 20% of any digital platform can be uniquely company-specific and is surely required to stay that way.

Remember:
● Stability should be built from the ground up.
● No system can ever be stronger than its weakest link.
● There can be no real digitalization without a fully remotely managed platform.

Identifying the three main levels of IT maturity

So, how does a shipping company – regardless of its size – go about these challenges? What obligations do technology providers have when it comes to endpoint security, for example operational equipment? Today, the levels of digital engagement vary considerably among shipping companies. Most companies fall into one of three user categories.

Some companies have spent a decade or more working on fleet digitalization. They have built up sophisticated platforms similar to those of many onshore corporations, except they have had to adapt to bandwidth availability. These are the superusers: the early adopters who have already made digital and connected fleets essential parts of their competitive edge. This is used along with flexible strategies for how to move in and out of markets, selling, building and buying vessels so as not to make cargo their only commodity. Data collection and analysis, and being able to take swift action because of them, contribute significantly to their success. And it will only do so even more in the future.

The second type of companies typically started their digital journey more recently, perhaps a few years ago. They have now made it to a level where they have standardized parts of their IT infrastructure. They may rely on their connectivity provider for their fleet’s firewall setup, for example. Now though, they face increasing pressure from operational technology (OT) such as navigation, cargo management and communication. These OT functions may require more IP connections and a cybersecure environment and network behind the firewalls. This is while the demand for flexible networks continues to increase.

The third group of users makes up a large portion of the shipping industry. These are companies that have partly been working “off the grid”, and barely digitalized their business operations at all. In most cases, they stick to their routes and rely on their contracts and unique presence in certain areas to sustain their business. These could be the types of shipowners or operators who mostly think of cybersecurity regulations compliance as an expense. To them, the most important thing is to protect their standalone systems on an endpoint level. That will be both difficult and time-consuming if you do not have the digital infrastructure in place to support it. The challenge amongst this group is to realize that most security features today, comes with many digital business benefits. And to invest in a multi layered digital integrations platform will give them the possibility to evolve along with their market rather than being locked out going forward.

Operational technology as a driving force

Most OT-related questions concern fleet safety, and who the provider of that fleet safety is. In order to realize the full potential of the OT systems, their suppliers need access to your fleet’s networks so that they are able to transport data both inside and outside of them.

OT has become a widely discussed topic in the shipping industry, not least because of IMO regulations. How can you maintain a cybersecure environment onboard even though not every OT supplier provides their input and output in a standardized manner?

The solution is a standard platform that allows the OT system to transfer data in a secure and policy-driven way. By offering OT suppliers a standardized way of accessing your digital environment with built-in cybersecurity, there will be no need for any special arrangements when new OT systems are added.

Prepare your systems for the future by making sure they live up to today’s demands

There is a lot of talk in the maritime world about cloud services and low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite services. Cloud services are already being used to a certain extent, though they are currently limited by low bandwidth. As for LEO satellite constellations, we should expect them to become a part of the maritime digital world in the future.

However, we must not look so much to the future that we lose sight of the present. Big data is often discussed as something that is on the horizon, brought on by the increasing sophistication of systems and applications. But big data is largely already here, in the shape of the enormous amounts of data that are transferred and accumulated all the time. Suppliers are still adapting to datatransfer restrictions. How this is managed will continue to be a measure of quality. Keeping the bandwidth available to share with land users on the same network will continue to be important.


Cybersecurity and maximum uptime future-proofs your fleet and business

Well-designed digital platforms come complete with cybersecurity, as required by IMO regulations. There is no need for any separate cybersecurity solution to be installed. Nor should it be treated as an unnecessary extra feature that you can do without. Think of it as the seatbelt in your car. It has to be there, and there is no reason for you not to use it.

Any digital system, on land or at sea, should allow for maximum uptime. System redundancy is required, but in return your system will not require physical inspections. Your business can run uninterrupted for years, and when an even more capable platform is available, you just switch to that one instead. Settle for a system created by experts who know the industry at large as well as the day-to-day needs of maritime professionals.

How your IT manager and team can ensure best practices

There are those who argue that standardized digital platforms and external integration specialists will render IT departments useless. Well, yes and no. The IT manager of a fleet or shipping company should focus on the needs of the business and how to meet them. For example: how can the platform be best utilized, what applications are used, how do these applications work, what OT implementations are the most important, how do we do business now and in the future? The IT manager needs to communicate internally to identify and compile the needs, yet also be an ambassador for the stakeholders when speaking with platform suppliers.

The IT manager should also report performance monitoring results. A well performing platform supplier will provide external monitoring as part of their delivery. They will also have many customer references, comments, and touchpoints from the users on the maritime market.

A digital integration supplier will also offer benchmarking comparisons, as some applications and functions will stand out in how they perform. Such benchmarking means that individual shipowners can avoid many pitfalls.

Also, there is strength in numbers. A group of users with the same problems can influence an application supplier more than an individual user can, by taking reported problems to a vendor, and replacing them with solutions. An integration specialist can also help guide application customers & suppliers in the right direction, so that they can make various functions for the maritime market
better and even more valuable than before. Benchmarking is also available on a quick notice this way putting the finger quickly on performance from application suppliers.

Preparing and securing your fleet for a digital transformation should be done from the bottom up. When done right, the transformation will enhance your business considerably. When the IT manager understands the fleet’s needs and minimum requirements – and knows how to deliver them – your company and staff will be able to focus on their main tasks.


Reaping the profits of fleet digitalization

As mentioned above, many companies are both used to and comfortable with ad hoc solutions. Companies that continue to employ traditional methodologies in the present digital era may be forced to adapt to the new digital environment without sufficient planning, resulting in additional costly measures to their business.

This is primarily as they do not put enough effort and expertise into their analyses of their digital infrastructure and the requirements for their business continuity. A proactive digital environment will always be more cost-efficient than a reactive one. The latter will prevent you from harvesting the fruits of a well-organized digital infrastructure.

By letting a company that is specialized in digital integration supply your platform, you will also get the benefit of free monitoring and continual platform development and improvement.

Some of your ROI will come from the many system changes a shipping company does to their original set-up throughout its service years. Rapid deployment of new functions, added OT equipment, or just updated software or applications – they will all result in major savings once your platform is up and running in a centralized manner. Having cybersecurity functionality as an integral part of the
platform will not only make it compliant but also save lots of time and money for your business.


Updates and additions provided continually, swiftly and securely to your fleet’s digital platform

  1. That is the number of individual changes, in the form of updates and additions to applications, hardware, OT-systems etc, that were made remotely to a certain major shipping company’s digital platform during five and a half years, before there was a need for a total upgrade of the fleet’s digital platform. This is an average of more than 100 changes per year which proves the strength
    and adaptability of a well-designed system.

    When setting up a new digital platform, all these changes and additions – as well as expected updates from various application suppliers – are considered beforehand in order to ensure continual remote rollouts of new services and benefits. That way, your new digital platform becomes an ecosystem where everyone involved can benefit from easily adapting to and overcoming upcoming
    challenges.

    A typical application rollout can be deployed and distributed to your entire fleet in less than 24 hours, without requiring any technicians onboard or large-scale on-shore operation. Your new or updated application will be there on your digital platform, available within hours.

    Compared to traditional maritime IT operations, having a digitalization platform in place will not be about saving money on cheaper IT operations. It will be about your ability to serve and sustain your business all the way, and prepare your fleet and operations for the digital demands you will undoubtedly face. Rapid deployment, 100% uptime, central management, enhanced security on all levels: these are the main areas where your digital platform will pay off, and make your company more profitable. It will help your business overcome future challenges, keep operational expenses under control, and bring down the costs of your digitalization over time.

    BlueCORE has been developed together with major shipowners and managers which has culminated in a solution that has experienced the breadth of challenges that our industry has to offer and tackled them head-on, resulting in a platform that gives us the ability to help you on your digital transformation journey.

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