IT and shipping have often been said to be almost strangers to each other but that is not an accurate reflection of the true position. The very first loading computers were to be found on ships almost half a century ago. These were quite primitive compared to their modern day counterparts and certainly no match for even some of the tablets that are on the market today.
Certainly in cargo and passenger ships, there was no way that the huge mainframe computers of the 1970s and before could have been accommodated much less kept operational by ships’ crews.
Shipping has certainly not been reluctant to make use of computers and IT despite many believing the industry is slow to take up new ideas. In shore offices, shipping companies make use of the same type of administrative software as most other organisations use with the choice between off-the-shelf, bespoke or in-house developed products being largely dictated by company size, location and outlook.
On-board ship, things may have progressed more slowly but this has been less a matter of choice and more due to the fact that integrating ship systems into wider networks has been made difficult by the lack of affordable means of communicating between sea and shore. Many systems on board ships from alarms to engine monitoring and diagnostics have embedded software and where this has been developed independently in each system over time, even integrating them into a ‘connected ship’ has not been easy. Regulation such as that relating to voyage data recording, ECDIS and bridge alarm management have introduced a need to improve system integration which in turn has opened up more possibilities. It has allowed the use of previously unobtainable data by specialist software such as the many voyage advisory and decision support products that have appeared over the last decade.
In 1998, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee approved guidelines for the on-board use and application of computers having recognised that ‘the advent of inexpensive personal computers has resulted in rapidly growing usage aboard merchant marine vessels for many shipboard applications, including cargo loading and trim and stability calculations.
For this use of computers to have come to the attention of the IMO and for the MSC to have prepared and approved guidelines, it is obvious that computers had been in use for the reasons mentioned for some years. And since Microsoft had only introduced Windows in 1992 and many offices were still not fully computerised by the mid-1990s, far from being late comers, the shipping industry was an early user of computing power.
Today computers are essential both ashore and on board ships for all manner of applications. Trim, stability and stowage are obvious areas where the necessary complex mathematical calculations can be performed quicker and more accurately by computer than by the crew although that should not be used as an excuse to abandon the need for seafarers to acquire the knowledge and experience needed to do them without the aid of electronics.
Ashore computing power can help fleet management and specialisations such as voyage estimating and comparison. But to what extent will depend upon the size and composition of an operator’s fleet. Today the buzz is all about ‘big data’ but that is really for tomorrow and there is more than sufficient need for more practical uses which a growing range of software products is aimed at satisfying.