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China’s first ‘smart ship’ is making waves
12.14.2017

    The concept of “smart,” which has become ubiquitous in our daily digital life, has also started sailing along in the shipping industry.

    At the just-concluded Marintec China 2017 exhibition in Shanghai, the first Chinese-made “smart ship,” named Great Intelligence, debuted to show the nation’s world-first achievement in this area.

    It is dubbed the world’s first smart ship, a name coined by its developer China State Shipbuilding Corp, as it is the first ship awarded the “cyber-safe,” “cyber-perform” and “cyber-maintain” smart-vessel classifications by Lloyd’s Register. It has also been classified an “intelligent ship” by the China Classification Society.

    In the China Classification Society’s definition, smart ships are those able to capture data covering the ocean environment, logistics, ports and their own equipment in real-time, which helps them autonomously pick and adjust routes and manage and maintain equipment and cargo on board in real time.

    That helps ships sail safer and reduce energy consumption. And that trend in shipbuilding is spreading worldwide.

    Alongside China, South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries in July launched its Integrated Smart Ship Solution, a collection of information technology systems aiming to optimize navigation by collecting real-time data.

    Global race

    Three ships built by another Korean shipyard, Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Group, have been certified “cyber-safe” by Lloyd’s.

    Japan, meanwhile, has set smart ship development as the key task for its shipping industry for the coming five years. In December 2012, the nation started a research project on smart ship applications by bringing together 29 organizations and companies including its ship classification society, Nippon Kaiji Kyokai.

    In November 2015, Norwegian classification agency DNV GL started a project with Japanese shipping giant NYK group to collect and monitor maritime data. Since then, four of the group’s container ships have delivered data to DNV GL’s digital platform, which created a “digital twin” to simulate the ships’ operations and will help monitor and predict maintenance in real time.

    DNV GL announced at the Marintec China exhibition that it will launch a sector — specialized in digital shipping solutions next year.

    But smart ship development is still in its infancy worldwide, said Arthur Brunvoll, owner and chairman of Brunvoll, a Norwegian ship equipment builder.

    “There even aren’t unified rules on these ships, with only a few classification societies having released standards,” he said.

    “Shipyards and ship equipment builders are eager to participate in this trend, but most of us would only add digital technologies in production and equipment maintenance, without knowing accurately how to define a smart ship.”

    The key to whether a ship is smart currently may be how many “smart” functions it has.

    The “cyber-safe” ships from Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Group, for example, cannot be considered smart ships, said Gu Yiqing, a chief designer of smart ships at the Shanghai Merchant Ship Design and Research Institute, as they don’t meet all conditions such as real-time maintenance.

    Lloyd’s Register and the China Classification Society are the only two societies which have released standards for smart ships so far.

    “(But) other nations and companies are surely accelerating design rules or developing smart ships,” said Fang Quan, vice president of the research institute.

    “They may not be willing to publish anything right now as rules on ships are complicated and important for national strategies, but smart ships have become an inevitable trend for the coming decades, a key sector to upgrade nations’ manufacturing competitiveness.”

    Although there is no specific research or data on the potential market size for smart ships, the concept will definitely boost the global shipping industry if it takes off, said Martin Stopford, president for research at Clarksons, the world’s largest ship broker.

    “While Uber has changed transport on land, boosting the frequency of taking taxies, connecting ships worldwide will significantly enhance global logistics and ensure shipping safety,” he said.

    “That will greatly bolster the recovery of the shipping industry from the downturn seen over the past decade, especially if Asian countries try digital solutions to connect ports — it’s the region where most of the world’s people are.”

    Connected ships

    “Connection,” as he mentioned, will become the next phase of smart ships. Ships with smart functions worldwide have remote control rooms behind them, which analyze their statistics and feed back whether to change routes or if equipment needs maintenance.

    The data collection is thanks to the development of the Internet and satellites, which help transmit and receive signals on machinery, ocean conditions and locations worldwide in real time.

    Although China has developed the world’s first smart ship, its remote control “back office” is limited by the fact it has only one ship to serve and receive data from, Fang said.

    “But it is open to all ships which are willing to connect and will be in charge of more smart ships in the future,” Fang said.

    Before ships as a whole become smart, advanced shipping equipment companies have already added “connection” to their suite of services to win leading positions in the market.

    Also during the Marintec China exhibition, Swedish-Swiss multinational ABB opened a remote control center in Shanghai named the Collaborative Operation Center, which is able to monitor its equipment onboard on time all over the world.

    Apart from its own equipment such as turbocharging systems, motors and propellers, ABB has also been working with other equipment makers to extend digital services.

    The company had eight such centers across the world before opening the Shanghai Center,  connecting more than 700 ships. By 2020, it expects to monitor equipment in 3,000 ships around the globe.

    “Smart equipment is the basis for smart ships,” said a shipping engineer at a classification society who asked not to be named.

    A single smart ship is just a start to show a nation’s progress in smart shipping, Fang said.

    Helped by digital technologies, the ship will avoid accidents caused by manual operations — “which account for over 80 percent of the total globally” — and will save energy and costs, as shipowners will be alerted to maintenance requirements in time instead of regularly overhauling and maintaining equipment.

    “I bet in future most new ships will be smart ships,” Fang said. “They are the key for the coming smart shipping market, encouraging nations worldwide to take a leading role in the trend.”