Need and Importance of IT in the Shipping Industry
By Anjan Deb, GM-IT (CIO), The Great Eastern Shipping
Q. Can you talk about the IT trends that are leveraged by your company?
A. In comparison with other industries, the shipping industry is running behind in terms of IT usage. If I pick up any bank or any manufacturing industry, they are always much ahead. However, it is slowly picking up. We have 46 ships that are remotely managed from India. On the communication side, the biggest challenge in India is that the Indian Government does not allow you to put VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) onboard, on ground of security related issues. As a result, we have to go for a very limited capacity broadband-based internet connection, which is very difficult to connect, transmit data, videos, online streaming, or real time data.
The people managing the ships are actually sitting at shore. They take care of any technical issues or any other operational issues that occur when at sea; continuously monitoring and guiding the ships. They are completely dependent on the feed that comes verbally, through audio from the ships. This is very expensive because it is a satellite connection. To reduce the cost of connectivity, we have introduced VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) allowing us to communicate with the ships from anywhere with just an internet connection.
We are trying to get real time data, especially on the operational side. We have implemented IoT by installing many sensors in different equipment onboard, like the main engine, radar, ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) an electronic map of the sea; these sensors directly send data to shore. Experimentally, we have put them in four ships and are now getting a lot of real time data which has actually raised the level of efficiency of the people at shore managing ships. They get the data in real time and are not solely depending on the data given by the Captain of the ship, which isn't as reliable. If the experiment is successful, we plan to run it on all our ships.
Right now, we have many applications at shore, which actually give the people managing ships, on a day-to-day basis, a lot of data from applications on the ships and in the form of reports, about the ship's performance, engine performance, fuel consumption, etc. The data compiled for all 46 ships provides for a lot of MIS data and dashboard data which helps people manage the ships from shore. The objective is to run the ships efficiently in terms of cost effectiveness and better service to the customer.
I can see that there is a change coming– there is a lot of scope for it enhancement or introduction of new technologies
Those things are now much more data driven, which was earlier not there.
We are slowly moving a lot of internet related stuff onboard. People now use the internet for personal reasons and it has now created a huge cyber security threat that is extremely concerning. We have had multiple check-ups by cyber security experts to know our vulnerabilities and the precautions we should take. We have basic analytics in place, and have started experimenting with big data as well; where we can capture some unstructured data to help the decision makers at the top take better calls.
Q. Talking about your personal experience as a CIO, you said IT adoption in the shipping industry is comparatively resistant. Where do you see it evolving towards from an IT perspective?
A. I have actually not been in the shipping industry from the beginning; I went through many other industries before coming here, which makes it easy for me to compare with other industries. A person who is hardcore shippy, comes out of Marine College at the age of 22 or 23 goes straight to the ship, he has to gain at least 15 to 20 years of sailing experience before he can get a shore post. So, the generation that works at shore right now, is all in their 40s and 50s, which is unfortunate because the IT revolution took place when they were at sea. When they started working at shore, they were completely unaware of things that happened in the last 20 years. So there is a mental block to adopting new technologies and this is a big challenge for me; convincing them to really accept anything new. Normal resistance is always there when looking to adopt something new, but here it is more because of the fear of the unknown. I don't blame them because of the fact that they are actually not from a technical environment, they spent their whole lives at sea, and have not actually experienced what was happening on land.
B. But I can see that there is a change coming and it will slowly and gradually transform. As a CIO, it is really a big challenge for me but at the same time, it gives me great pleasure when I break through to them. I convince them to do it, it might take a little more time, but then they finally go for it. It is very interesting because you have a lot of things to do here. In the sense, there is a lot of scope for IT enhancement or introduction of new technologies. So that's an interesting thing, it isn't repetitive. The whole concept of adopting new technology is coming into the industry.
Q. Is there anything else that you want to add from your end? Any interesting or personal insight or any experience?
A. There is a change that I can see, not just in the Indian shipping industry, but also across regions. There is not a single good ERP system today available world wide for shipping industry. ERP is a basic level application that actually captures the root level data for all different business functions. If that is also not available in the industry, it shows that the industry is comparatively behind with the other industries. That is why we have developed the ERP system ourselves. The bottom line is this industry has a good scope for the implementation and adoption of IT.
Moreover, connectivity does play a significant role because everything is remote. Everything can be managed remotely. If something is remote on land, accessing it becomes easy. If I am in New York and you are in Bombay, in case of an emergency, I can fly down in a few days. But at sea, it is absolutely remote, you just cannot fly down to a ship in the middle of the sea in an emergency. So, you have to be so accurate while piloting them and remember they are in a constrained state. Whatever is on the ship is all they have, so there needs to be continuous monitoring.