Do you want to make your shipping operations more cost-efficient, eco-friendly, productive and ultimately more profitable?
A rhetorical question, obviously – but what is the strongest enabler for these business goals in 2020? I venture to say investing in technology.
Seaborne transport is smack-dab in the middle of one of the biggest transformations in the history of the maritime industry. The shipping companies that will remain standing – or floating, if you will – after the dust has settled, will undoubtedly be those who invest in the right ICT solutions.
What to choose: Off-the-shelf or maritime-specific solutions?
A ship at sea constitutes a far more complex and harsh environment than that of an office operation safely situated in the terrestrial domain. Naturally, this places extra demands on any ICT solution used in the maritime sector. In a floating office far removed from “the in-house IT guy”, continuity of operations is critical. Operational disruptions are costly, not only for you as a shipowner or operator, but for your clients and trading partners across the supply chain.
In shipping, solutions simply need to work (ie. be rugged and reliable). and they need to be kept simple (ie. be user-friendly and intuitive). ICT solutions can be roughly divided into two overarching categories: generic or industry-specific. Which option is most likely to work best for your shipping operations?
Let’s look at the key differences between general-purpose and maritime-optimised IT solutions, and the pros and cons of each.
With a “generic” system, it’s a “one-size-fits-all” solution. These software systems are usually supported by established vendors with plenty of brand recognition.
In general, generic systems offer a solution with a smaller upfront cost. They also usually offer lots of features, and some of those features might be useful for your operations.
Another advantage of selecting generic systems is that they are delivered by an established brand, which means that they tend to have a larger user base with generic knowledge about the day-to-day operation of that software. This usually translates into more learning resources and user guides available online, often helping you learn the basics more easily. If you run into a problem using the system, the user community most likely knows how to solve it.
Finally, off-the-shelf software solutions are typically ‘OS agnostic’, meaning that they are built to run under any operating system.
One of the crucial disadvantages of using ‘out of the box’ software is the lack of important industry-specific features most shipping companies need to efficiently run daily functions and conduct operations at sea.
Furthermore, while the initial cost of generic software may be lower than maritime-specific systems, it is often more expensive over time. Additional costs are often tacked on as your business grows and requires different features.
Another disadvantage of using generic software is the lack of industry experts available to help tweak the software to fit your specific needs. A generic ICT solution will likely need some sort of customisation, enhancement, or add-on to meet the always-evolving requirements of your business. Customisations can be costly, time-consuming, and often result in inflexible systems that barely get the job done and are difficult to adapt as processes or technologies continually change.
What’s more, custom training and support are not always available when buying generic software.
In general, off-the-shelf solutions are not designed to withstand the maritime domain.
As the term implies, maritime-specific systems are developed based on the unique needs of the maritime sector. They typically offer more directly applicable functionality, because they have been designed around definite requirements, with a deep understanding of shipping-specific operations and processes.
In a maritime shipping setting, industry-specific software – unlike a generic solution – will offer powerful functionality that directly applies to your asset management and ship-to-shore business operations. Maritime-specific systems are designed to work with the limitations in bandwidth capacity inherent in satellite communications. They also have powerful compression and data optimisation features.
A software solution that is designed specifically to help meet the challenges of vessel connectivity is provided by a vendor that possesses the industry experience to have a deep understanding of your needs and requirements.
Furthermore, a vendor specialising in maritime-optimised ICT solutions have made substantial financial investments, plus years of software development efforts to understand your particular industry vertical-market requirements.
Choosing a maritime-friendly solution will minimise the time and attention required to adapt the service to your organisation.
A software provider who has a proven track record of working in your sector and area of operations will have extensive experience implementing their software in shipboard infrastructures just like yours. They can foresee common issues that similar shipping companies have dealt with before. Besides, maritime-specific software allows you to benefit from many other companies such as yours that have had input into the R&D of the software.
When you invest in maritime-optimised services and solutions, you get customer support representatives who are trained specifically to work with seafarers. After all, it’s easier to work with a support team that a) understands challenges and processes that are unique to your industry, and b) that are made up of qualified IT engineers.
Consequently, choosing a maritime-friendly solution will minimise the time and attention required to adapt the service to your organisation.
For some companies, one of the disadvantages of selecting maritime-specific software is the potential higher initial cost. However, this is quickly recovered from productivity gains and growth, with better long-term return on investment.
Maritime-specific software has a smaller user base, which usually means slightly fewer features available compared to large, consumer-based software systems. Then again, these features are most likely neither necessary nor applicable in a maritime environment and vessel infrastructure.
Adopting software that is purpose-built for the maritime industry requires onboard crews to be properly trained, as the system is new to them. Conversely, using a consumer-grade product might lessen the need for training, as the seafarers are often familiar with the features from shore-based activities.
What’s the best choice?
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the business software aisle. For some shipping companies, selecting an established vendor with high brand recognition may seem like the safest option. After all, generic solutions are used by thousands of businesses worldwide, so what can go wrong?
For one, generic software solutions are designed with no regards for infrastructure constraints and are less suited for shipping, due to the challenges and particularities of ship connectivity. Moreover, relying entirely on a generic solution will lead to “generic” processes and strip your organization of any room for innovation. In today’s fast-moving global markets, you can’t afford to have your competitive edge blunted by ICT that ultimately doesn’t fit your needs.
Conversely, maritime-specific products and services bring business-critical features and functionality to the table that general software doesn’t. Using maritime-specific solutions on your vessels ensures optimised use of your communication infrastructure, adding real business value.
Maritime domain experts also have hands-on implementation experience and knowledge of best practices – they will help you secure the value of your technology investment.
As a shipowner or operator, you’re reliant upon the best and most forward-leaning digital solutions to ensure reliable and secure ship-to-shore transfer of data. In this respect, a maritime-specific software system will offer everything you need, and nothing you don’t.
Written by Geir Inge Jensen, IT Operations Manager
Geir Inge Jensen is the IT Operations Manager at Dualog. Adding over 20 years of experience in network design and cyber security, Geir Inge is passionate about developing solutions and services that help shipping companies create a more cyber-resilient environment onboard their vessels. When he is not fighting maritime cybercrime, you can find him in the mountains enjoying the great outdoors with his camera in hand.