ICT: the Industrialisation of Communications Technology

by 17, Mar, 2021Innovation, Maritime 4.00 comments

The demands of digitalisation and efficiency mean an upgrade is needed to the communications that underpins both says Tore Morten Olsen, President, Maritime, Marlink.

A combination of commercial incentives and regulatory necessity is putting intense pressure on vessel owners and operators to embrace digitalisation and enhance their use of information and operational technology. Shipping is subject to increasing demands to improve efficiency and profitability while lowering emissions, requiring a new approach to vessel operations.

For a shipping line with a large, mixed fleet the challenge is similar to any organisation with global operations; how to manage an increasingly remote workforce in an environment where the speed and complexity of customer demands appear to grow almost exponentially.

The need to meet local and global standards for regulation, certification and compliance is merely part of the puzzle. A fleet IT manager must consider how to future proof for operational efficiency, monitoring and reporting alongside maintenance of the network itself.

The traditional approach, in which operators selected components of an IT function in a piecemeal way, combining bespoke software and processes is ending and being replaced with an ‘industrialised’ approach. The need to embrace collaborative ways of working means addressing how to design a network and its components from the ground up and even considering buying a network solution as a complete service.

Global Trends

While the shipping industry remains a highly fragmented business, it is also one defined by the presence of large, consolidated players with global reach. For these operators, the ability to compete and also be more efficient is increasing their need to consolidate their operations around greater automation and the use of standardised systems.

For smaller players, such discipline is harder, especially if ships are older and less homogenous and because they lack the clear incentive to invest if tonnage is on long term charter, so the process is naturally slower. For a large player the challenges lie in creating standards, sharing applications and maintaining data quality. This requires rethinking of how networks should be designed to support short and long term business goals and wider industry safety and regulatory objectives.

There are both IT and OT ingredients to the data that needs to be collected; voyage data from navigation and bridge functions must be analysed together with sensor input from engine room equipment. The output feeds into improvements in voyage efficiency and new concepts like remote access as well as established processes such as planned and preventative maintenance.

With regulatory and reporting requirements set to rise, the need to demonstrate compliance has also increased, from documentation requirements and automated data capture to the need to maintain IT networks in compliance with cyber security regulations.

New Applications

At the application end of the spectrum the demands are increasingly mirroring trends onshore, with demand growing for collaborative workflow tools, file sharing and databases that require much higher network performance than has been possible until now.

For IT fleet managers the task can be daunting and the requirement is increasing to move from disparate, unconsolidated systems towards an industrialised approach to communications technology. Doing so certainly requires more bandwidth and throughput but also decisions on which applications are key to the business and how to achieve automation that reduces the compliance burden on crew.

This suggests a move away from systems of components built over years and in particular bespoke IT and OT systems that are prone to end of life and also that they should look to managed services as a means of outsourcing the process and concentrating instead on achieving business goals.

In particular the need for standardised collaboration tools will test the performance boundaries of geostationary satellite network unless the network is designed from the ground up with tasks and applications in mind. It is likely for example that using in-house or bespoke software to manage data will soon be overtaken by the need for standardised enterprise software and applications on a fleetwide basis. It’s not software being adapted to each ship operator anymore but ship operators adapting their operation to fit standardised and industrialised applications, certifications and best practices.

The easy vs the hard

Connecting individual devices and equipment is comparatively easy but the trend towards maintaining compliance, increasing customer and stakeholder visibility and maintaining an operational edge creates a degree of complexity that many ship operators realise they cannot overcome on their own.

This combination of connectivity and collaboration will only increase as the demands of digitalisation make vessel operations more complex and increase the need to move away from in-house proprietary systems towards an industrialised approach.

As pressure on efficiency increases in the next few years, the demand for transparency will grow further and faster than before. The need to demonstrate an ESG strategy to stakeholders extends all the way from human resource management to performance reporting across multiple key indicators. As those demands continue to grow, so will the realisation that a smarter shipping company is one that concentrates on cargo and relies on a specialist to provide the infrastructure that keeps them connected and compliant.


The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.

About Tore Morten Olsen, President, Marlink Group

Tore Morten Olsen holds a M.Sc in Telecommunications from the Norwegian Technical University from 1993, and has participated in Executive MBA programs at Wharton Business School in the United States, Insead in France and Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden. He has 24 years of experience in the satellite communications sector, starting out as a technical product manager in 1994 and moving on to hold several senior management positions with Telenor, Astrium Services, Airbus Defence and Space, and Marlink.

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