Ships were once meant solely for the seas and major maintenance was resigned to the docks. However, digital technology is making waves in the marine sector and as such, the concept of taking a ship 'online' – by making its on-board data available to onshore experts – is becoming ever more common. The thrust for this change is down to a need to achieve improvements in three critical areas: maintenance, environmental performance and safety.
Take the example of cruise ship operator Costa Group. Its fleet operation centre (FOC), which opened recently in Hamburg, Germany, acts as a central information hub for 26 of its cruise vessels. The FOC, which operates around the clock, is staffed by 14 specialists who receive data directly from the vessels and analyse it accordingly.
While other ship operators run similar operations, Costa Group's FOC is the most well known, and is technically very advanced. It is a fantastic advertisement for the importance of on-board data monitoring.
Condition Monitoring (CM) is concerned with maintenance, and is already widely used in shipping. SKF has installed its CM systems in more than 600 vessels. However, the vast majority of these use standalone software installed on the ship: crewmembers check bearings, for example, and then decide if any action is needed. They will typically gather data using hand-held portable devices. While they have access to onshore expertise, these are not 'connected' systems.
The cloud based equivalent monitors machinery with fixed sensors, whose signals are beamed wirelessly to a central onshore facility – similar to the FOC – where experts can give guidance on how best to maintain particular machines or components.
In general, the industry has been slow to move towards 'connected' CM systems. There is a level of discomfort for crewmembers, for instance, who feel that management would be 'looking over their shoulders'. For smaller ship owners, there is an added complexity of managing such an operation.
However, there are drivers for change. One is the perennial problem of cost. The shipping industry is under huge cost pressure, and dry dock maintenance forms a large part of this. Proper implemented Condition Based Maintenace (CBM) combined with state of the art CM can help to extend the period between these expensive maintenance exercises. SKF already has approvals for thruster monitoring system– which now need maintaining every 7.5 years rather than every five years.
Similar systems are also available to monitor crucial environmental data: SKF's BlueMon, for instance, helps crews cope with fast-changing environmental regulations. Rules for the Atlantic Ocean are different to those for the Baltic Sea, so sailing between them can mean that operations must be changed. A good example is bilge water: discharges into the Baltic are under stricter control than they are for the Atlantic – so an online, connected system like BlueMon helps to prevent 'illegal' discharges.
Far from undermining the crew, BlueMon can help them meet their responsibilities. It overlays a GPS map of the world with details of the latest local regulations – and can even disable the bilge water output valve if necessary.
An online system can also provide hidden benefits: by knowing the time of the next docking slot, for example, a ship can slow down – and use less fuel – rather than steaming into port and waiting hours for the next slot.
Within 10 years, it's likely that every major ship owner will be using some kind of 'global' online system. They will have the necessary size to manage the complexity of these systems, but will also reap the benefits: spotting how one ship saves fuel could be transferred to the entire fleet. Most smaller players are still likely to choose cloud based systems, and use handheld data gathering equipment.
It's still early days for online CM in the shipping industry, so SKF does not yet have a dedicated 'central control room' for ships – but we do have one for offshore wind turbines. Located in Hamburg, it is staffed by five people and looks after 140 turbines worldwide.
There are two main differences between ships and wind turbines: because turbines are stationary, data can be transferred via cable (rather than needing satellite connectivity); and the operating conditions on-board ship can be far more complex depending of number of units to be monitored and operation condition of these.
However, with using a smart system of pre-evaluation of the data onboard by available software and thereby minimising the data volume ship owners have to control, and subsequently lowering the cost for the needed satellite connectivity, in the end there is no real difference (technically or cost-wise) between Remote Diagnostic Systems for Offshore Windmills or ships sailing the seven seas.
Once the shipping industry has a critical mass in the use on online CBM, SKF expects to be providing its own 'Fleet Support Center'' to maintain the health of critical components on-board ship.