How to find the maritime digital technology you want - Dimitris Lyras

Feb 27 2020

Not all digital technology offered to the maritime industry will help us - and the technology which would help us is often not on offer. Dimitris Lyras, director of Lyras Shipping, and maritime software company Ulysses Systems, shared some ideas on how to use technology which will actually help you and your seafarers.

Many software companies are approaching shipping companies with products which were originally developed to solve someone else's problem, said Dimitris Lyras, director of Lyras Shipping, and maritime software company Ulysses Systems.


The software could be defined as a bag of tricks.  "Does the bag of tricks work for you?  It generally doesn't," he said.


It means that shipping companies need to "filter the noise" - work out what is relevant for them out of the products they are offered.


A software company won't usually put themselves in your position, as a shipping company manager. If you just experiment to try to find out whether it is helpful, "you can spend a couple of million bucks in the process."


Software companies typically promise their products will "help mariners perform better".


But the best way their products could do that is by providing better access to the right information. This means the right information when you need it, and not having to spend time with information which you don't need. If the information isn't specifically tailored to what you need, then this is what will happen.


"This is how you do digital transformation," he said.


"If you do it by someone coming and telling you what they have to sell you, who is going to tie it all together? Who is going to finally deliver a working solution?"


And any solution is unlikely to come from just one vendor - so it will need the products of a number of different vendors to integrate together.



Many companies are talking about AI in shipping.


Artificial intelligence is a misleading term, since one of the most advanced examples you read about, a computer recognizing a dog in an image, is hardly considered "an intelligent thing for a human."


"Recognizing a dog is really hard for a computer," he said. But in human terms, "you can tell them it's stupid - just doing something some other dog could have done."


AI companies are spending enormous amounts of money training computers to do tasks like this, and they want a return. There are many excellent uses for this. But they have spent money solving a problem they had - and it doesn't mean it is going to solve any specific maritime problem.


Shipboard networks

Meanwhile, there are useful digital technologies for shipping. One example, which Mr Lyras had recently seen at a conference, was wireless communications networks which work on a ship.


It is often not possible to use normal wi-fi or cellular communications inside a ship because the radio communication cannot penetrate the steel walls. But this company (Scanreach) had developed a protocol which can work on board a ship.


Knowing mariners’ location on the ship is the most important safety and co-ordination issue of all.


Better networks make it possible in the future to have for example data communications in an enclosed space, communicating data about whether it has a dangerous atmosphere without spot checks that a mariner cannot continuously be doing while working in the tank. Or to keep track of where the mariner is in the tank You could presumably communicate data about the heartbeat of people while they are in the tank.


"You can have sensors that tell you what people are doing in there, if they are alright. It's going to be a game changer," he said. "It is knowing what is going on, on the ship."


"Networks onboard are important. We don't talk about it."


Co-ordinating work

"Co-ordination onboard ship is extremely important.


A lot of co-ordination is required on repairs and maintenance work, including with safety, if one person runs into difficulties, another can provide assistance.


"The co-ordination isn't quite there because technology isn't there. It's not because people didn't try, it's because technology didn't exist. Soon enough it will."


Some software companies are promoting tools to help co-ordinate work, but not the sort of work co-ordination which is useful for shipping people. For example, one ERP vendor was advertising that its products enabled staff to approve a purchase order while at the gym. This is because it’s easy to show a purchase order. Less easy to show what is going on at any one time on a ship.


Left out relaxing in the gym; Mr Lyras said. Not good to make self-centred comments.


What would be better is if the smart device knew what the ship and its crew are doing. For example some of the crew are undertaking a piping repair, there are people entering closed space, or cleaning tanks, pressing up a pipe or a tank for a test. Attention is dispersed in a certain way. It tells you what everybody else is doing."


We all know how useful handheld devices can be, from our experience with smart phones.  "But remember handheld devices were made by companies that invest billions in generic features," he said.


Ships don’t only use generic co-ordination features. "There's no company that's going to come out of Silicon Valley which will work out if you are doing tank cleaning, what is sensitive in the operation, what defects a component has, what safety issues are prevalent, what knock on effects you might encounter if  you stop the tank cleaning momentarily."


A shipping expert would be aware that "mooring processes can cause injuries and other hazards” he said. Or that “handling windlasses can cause overloading of windlass motors”.


How well are junior mariners informed of these issues.


It would be useful to know what machines are doing when you are not standing next to them.


Seafarers don't spend their time just watching one machine, they move around the ship. It could be useful to have situation awareness tools, different from those of a factory. "Nobody is going to help us with it."


Knowledge management

Mobile devices could also deliver useful knowledge to seafarers. For example, they could provide updated information about hazards, safety issues, current information, history of machinery. "Knowledge management is one of the things you don't hear about," he said.


Previous efforts to build knowledge management systems, carried out over the past 2 decades, failed largely because companies were unable to connect the knowledge to the current situation of the practitioner.


Knowledge not linked to the current situation "is just a file store", he said. "Just because you can put information in there doesn't mean it is knowledge."


"Today, because of power of handheld computing, you can actually solve some of these problems."


If people don't have the best possible information, they might start doing work on machinery which would be better left untouched. "They adjust things that don't need adjusting, because they don't have information at the time of need."


"Information at the time of need is possible. We have a computer very close to us these days.


That computer can be told what's going on. Nobody is doing it because Silicon Valley doesn't make any money figuring out what you are doing."


A person going to a ship does not have a way of sharing knowledge from the person who previously did that role on the ship, just some files or personal notes.


"If you're going to involve mariners, you have to have a system where the mariners' knowledge and corporate knowledge somehow mesh together," he said.


And machinery manuals are usually "not written for the guy who's about to read it."


Perhaps computer systems could even assist with interpersonal skills. "It's quite obvious when things go sour on a ship - people have an interpersonal skills problem," he said.


The pathway to improved software systems onboard is to find ways to involve mariners in configuring certain aspects of the software, so it brings them exactly what they need. "You can say,  do I want my mariner making changes to the software? Yes you do. But how is he going to get involved - and which part is he going to make changes to?"


Advanced technology

One audience member asked how virtual reality should fit into the maritime industry - since it potentially offers completely new ways of doing things, not just a replacement for the usual methods. It would make sense for the shipping industry to embrace new technologies as soon as possible, since it will come along eventually whether the industry wants them or not.


Mr Lyras replied, perhaps the first step is careful consideration, because VR training is not something which can be introduced "with the snap of a finger," and vendors are unlikely to do all the work of creating effective products themselves.


"We want to enable mariners to do good work - not let machines do good work. It is a thinking process It is a domain experts process."


Companies can often go too far in thinking advanced technology solves all problems. Mr Lyras cited one example he knows of a shipping company person who ran into financial problems and was arranged a meeting with the bank. Rather than talk about the company finances, the bank's representative suggested that a data lake might be the answer.


"Do you think a data lake is something we're ever going to hear about again? It was a fad at some point," he said.


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