Ship management software

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche
ShipInsight

12 November 2017


Operating ships involves several routine tasks some of which have parallels with most other industries and some which are unique to shipping. Just as most businesses have adopted the use of IT in their day-to-day activities, so too has the shipping industry.

Shipowners and managers have sometimes made use of standard software packages but they most often prefer products that have been developed specifically for shipping, either in-house or by specialist developers.

Ship management is an area that many software providers see as providing lucrative opportunities for sales but where comparatively few achieve much success. This may be because the ship owning and operating sector does not have a standard model operation with practices that can easily be computerised or because it has devised its own in-house
software.
In many instances, those devising the software have a background in ship ownership or management and while they can empathise with what was needed in the type of organisation they themselves worked in, some do not appreciate that others have different ideas. Some software providers are in fact spin-offs from in-house departments of shipowning companies.

Considering the international nature of ship operation, it should come as no surprise that software suppliers are to be found in all corners of the globe but for some unknown reason many of the early pioneers were Norwegian organisations and their brands are still among the market leaders today.

Ship management organisations come in a wide range of sizes with some managing no more than a handful of vessels while others may have several hundred ships in management. Some of the software these organisations need could be bought off the shelf at any software retailer.
Accounting, payroll, maintenance and stock control and purchasing software designed for general use is perfectly adequate for most shipping companies’ needs but because there may be some that prefer to be able to integrate different activities, a purpose-designed suite of software may be more acceptable.

Coming under the general heading of Ship management software are the following five activities:-

  • Finance and Accounting
  • Purchasing/e-commerce
  • Document Control
  • Planned Maintenance
  • Crewing/Payroll

There are also some programs specially devised for ISM and ISPS Code administration that might overlap with some of the above and which are covered elsewhere. An even newer area is for monitoring reporting and verification of CO2 emissions. It should also be noted that some areas, in particular the last three categories, could be considered by some to cover operations as well as administration. This is because some documents may be needed to obtain port entry or clearance and much of the maintenance will be carried out in service.

Many of the commercial ship management programs available on the market were initially developed as proprietary in-house projects for ship operators and others have been developed from the outset by third party developers sometimes with input from experienced shipping staff. Classification societies are also quite active in this area and some of their products are naturally heavily featured in the maintenance and procurement aspects.

While it would seem logical that those products that have benefitted from actual ship operating experience should be superior, it should not be forgotten that practices in different companies vary. Therefore when selecting software one of the deciding factors should be avoiding a steep learning curve for staff by investigating the market for a product that matches reasonably well with how things are being done presently.

Whatever their origin, the software products that attempt to provide everything for modern ship management are usually modular products that can be acquired as a full set or as individual modules as required. The advantages of opting for a full set are generally a common user interface across modules making for quicker familiarity by users and a high degree of integration.

It is not impossible to mix and match modules from different software suppliers but that may come at the expense of full integration. When considering a switch between different systems or selecting module from different suppliers, consideration should be given to the value of historic data that may be lost in the process. Alternatively, one supplier may agree to integrate historic data but there may be a financial cost involved in this.

Any effective management system requires communication between ships and the relevant shore departments. Some early software was designed to be run almost entirely on shore with vessels supplying paper versions of forms that would be logged and actioned when received. As communications have improved and costs fallen, it is now more likely that the ship’s information and requests will be transmitted electronically and integrated directly into the shore system.

Minimum module functionality

Accounting

Accounting modules should be able to be capable of producing all manner of financial reports for individual ships and on a fleetwide basis. Considering the international nature of shipping the ability to deal with multiple currencies and exchange rates may be essential. In conjunction with the crewing modules it should also be able to handle basic pay and overtime, allotments sent home to families and increasingly able to account for personal use and charges for ships communications.

The account modules naturally merge with purchasing and e-commerce modules which themselves integrate with crewing and maintenance modules. If they are intended for use in producing any form of accounting document or report required under the flag state or ship operators’ government authorities, then it needs to be established that they are able to do this.

Some of the purchasing modules are able to produce inventories for stores and spares on individual ships. This is obviously of use for maintenance purposes but some can also produce lists of bonded stores that many customs authorities will require at every port call.

Maintenance

The maintenance modules can be as simple as merely listing main items of equipment and detailing OEM maintenance schedules, but far more complex version exist and some may even include job sheets and multi-media aspects that detail exactly how to carry out specific tasks rather than just being a means of recording work done.

In conjunction with the document control modules, some may even produce permits for hot work, enclosed space entry and the like. In conjunction with document control module, drawings, spare part number lists, photos of damage, equipment manuals and class conditions and surveyor reports can also be tagged for cross reference.

Most maintenance modules were formulated for planned maintenance and their record keeping capabilities may not be best match to an operator with a condition-based maintenance strategy or to those less diligent operators that tend to do maintenance only in case of need. In the latter case there is little chance that the operator would even be contemplating investing in software.

Some of the maintenance programs also have options to produce drydocking specifications that can be used both to obtain quotes from potential contractors and to aid drydocking superintendents to ensure that all planned work is carried out to appropriate specifications.
A feature that could prove useful in the maintenance and purchasing aspects of software is the ability to produce trend analysis reports for individual ships and across the fleet as a whole. Ships that perform least well in any regard can be singled out for special attention and remedial action as necessary. It may also be useful to be able to link these analyses with information from the crewing module as it will be found that there is often a strong link between the quality of maintenance and purchasing ability (good and bad) and particular officers and crew.

Maintenance modules are intended for scheduling and recoding maintenance but they can be enhanced in some cases using the Shipdex Protocol. Shipdex was established around ten years ago when a small number of shipowner and equipment suppliers co-operated to make essential manual, maintenance methods and spare parts lists more readily available.

By developing a common and standardised Protocol for exchanging data, the OEM’s information can be used across a variety of platforms and integrated with commercial maintenance software.

Crewing

When it comes to crewing, there are again several strategies that ship operators adopt and in most cases there are products that will match their needs better than others. At their simplest, crewing software products can be little more than databases of certificates, training and personal records.

At the very least a product should allow for every employee’s information to be recorded in a set of data groups that cover personal and family records, competence, training, medical and employment history. These will allow all operators to maintain details of crew that have served on their vessels.

A more sophisticated type of product is one of the numerous Crew Planning programs that are marketed. The list of features varies but as well as being records of crew they are intended to support the task of managing the placement of crew members and are particularly useful
for operators with several ship types.

With a typical system of this type it is possible to select crew based upon vessel’s flag (vessels flying flags of nations on the white list may only accept crew with certificates of competence issued by similar countries, ship type, sphere of operation and operational mode (Initial commissioning, take over, drydock, voyage length, GMDSS sea areas etc.). When selecting crew these products can flag up missing certificates, mid-voyage expiry dates, pre-arranged training courses and even less obvious matters such as difficulties in personal relationships with other potential crew.

Following the coming into force of the MLC 2006 in 2013, there is now a requirement for limits on the hours crews are permitted to work under normal circumstances. Some crewing software already records working hours and produces reports which could be acceptable to PSC inspectors policing the MLC

Document Control

Because every ship management system has some unique aspects, a means of ensuring that appropriate documents can be identified and changes followed is essential. The documents involved are many and varied. First and foremost there will be the procedures and manuals of the safety management system and then any audits, non-compliances and follow ups.

The procedures and manuals of an SMS may be kept to a minimum in some systems but include large numbers of checklists, work procedures, equipment manuals and OEM recommendations in the more complex systems. Keeping track of changes to procedures and ensuring that ships and personnel are advised of the latest version is a major failing in some companies’ systems and one that frequently results in PSC problems. Software is very good at managing this and recording that appropriate documents have not only been delivered to vessels but have been read and recorded as such by crew members.

There are numerous stand-alone document management software offerings available and some of these will offer cloud-based storage. This could be an advantage allowing access at all times even if the company’s own servers are unavailable for any reason. Regardless of where the documents are stored, access and the ability to change them needs to be managed by way of password protections or similar.