Innovate or sink: shipping tech -

Innovate or sink: shipping tech

06 Mar 2018

Interview with Giampiero Soncini, Senior Advisor Marine Innovation, RINA

Ever since I joined the Italian Navy 46 years ago, I’ve been helping to make ships better and smarter using technology. In the Navy, I worked on the first automated system using an Intel 8080 processor for engine rooms. Later, for the NATO Undersea Research Centre, I was involved in the construction of the first vessel with a fully computerised, GPS-based navigation system. It’s a sign of how times have changed: we had to get special permission from the US government to install the GPS device, which cost $700,000 and was the size of a large cupboard. These experiences helped me as CEO of SpecTec, which created the first comprehensive asset management system for ships, AMOS.
Now RINA has asked me to join them as a consultant in marine innovation, supporting the company’s drive towards better digitalisation. In the midst of phenomenal growth and transformation, I don’t think RINA even notices how innovative it already is. For example, I’m thrilled to get an insight into their state-of-the-art fleet performance monitoring software, InfoSHIP EGO Energy Governance. Other technologies currently under development are ones that I’ve been wishing for over the last three years. It’s good that RINA is already following the path of innovation. Because as history reveals, organisations that are complacent and resistant to change are the first ones to sink. 

Although usually quick to adapt to changing conditions, the shipping industry has been slow to react to developments in technology. Given the long lifetimes of ships and the logistical complications of retrofitting a large fleet, it’s easy to understand why. But when you compare shipping with, say, the aviation industry, you see that some changes make a lot of sense. Unlike airlines, as yet almost no ship owners have a system of condition-based maintenance. They just sit back and wait for a component to fail before fixing it. Technical documentation for aeroplanes is in the form of IETPs – Interactive Electronic Technical Publications – and takes up the space of a USB stick. Ships instead have to carry around massive piles of paper books that can’t be consulted by anyone who’s not on board the ship or in the owner’s office. Every year I fly hundreds of thousands of kilometres, but if an airline were managed like the average shipping company, I would never get on a plane.

Innovation can help shipping companies stop doing crazy things that waste time and money, like carrying tonnes of documents around in paper form, trying to monitor a ship’s enormously complex engines manually, and flying surveyors across the world at huge expense to carry out inspections that could be done efficiently by drone.

Fear slows down innovation. The fear that new technologies will lead to mass unemployment is widespread but not true, any more than it was true for the printing press and the steam engine. Of course, some types of job will be lost. Ten years ago, I started to predict that half of ships would soon operate with no or a very small crew. People thought it was a crazy idea, even a dangerous idea. But it’s totally feasible and – if Western shipping companies want to compete with China, which has unlimited numbers of seafarers and very low crew costs – absolutely necessary. Stepping bravely into this future is the only way to compete in an industry with ever-fiercer competition and ever-tighter margins. 

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