I’ve been in shipping for all of my career, which now spans 40 years. It is a noble profession when one considers that a small number of officers and crew are given total responsibility for the safe navigation and operation of vessels that can be valued in the tens of millions of dollars, and cargoes that can be worth more than $100 million. In the cruise sector, vessels are worth more than $1 billion as first delivered from the shipyard.
One of my favorite stories from my shipping days involves a third assistant engineer named Stan who had a speech impediment. As a sea-going cadet, I worked with him from 8 to 5, five days a week, on our voyage up and down the US East Coast. One day we needed to repair a pipe flange in the bottom of the number 1 cargo tank, which was all the way forward on the vessel. The tank had been gas-freed, and we arrived at the site with our tools to perform the repair.
He turned to me and announced that we needed a “mammet” and asked me to go to the engine room machine shop and retrieve one. So off I went, up the ladder inside the access trunk to the main deck. This ship was about 800 feet long, so it was a bit of a hike in the rolling seas to walk aft and into the accommodation space and then downstairs into the engine room. I cruised into the machine shop and asked “Where do we keep the mammets?” No one knew what I was talking about, so the First Engineer asked me if I was working with Old Stan. He reminded me of the speech impediment, and asked if I would go back and ask Stan to spell out what tool he was referring to.
Up the stairs I went, out to main deck, all the way forward, down the access trunk, and then to the corner of the tank where we were working. Stan saw me coming empty-handed. “Where’s the mammet?!” I did as the First suggested and asked him to spell it out. Stan was a stubborn fellow, so he just repeated “Mammet! Mammet! On the board!” and turned away.
So off I went again, up the ladder, down the rolling deck, into the accommodation, down the stairs, and into the machine shop. “Well?” said the First. I couldn’t explain, so the First sent me back to the #1 tank with the same instruction. When Stan saw me coming without a mammet once again, he stood up quickly, threw down his rag, and started toward the access trunk. I was right behind him back to the machine shop. He went up to the pegboard that held many of our common tools, pulled off a ball-peen hammer, shook it at me, and said “Mammet!”
The image I have of Stan and some of the other engineers with whom I sailed is “old school.” In those days, shipboard machinery was sensed by listening, touching, and viewing a few gauges. Today, these machines are much more advanced in design, efficiency, and economy. Sensors are everywhere, recording data and transmitting to a central receiving point.
With machine learning and cognitive analytics tools, today’s engineers can unlock the value of that data by detecting anomalies in machine operation, and predicting failure with high confidence. As the above graphic shows, while most shipowners do not currently employ machine learning or predictive analytics, they increasingly see a need for machine learning technologies to optimize their operations and maintenance, as well as to keep up in a changing industry.
Cognitive tools allow a deeper understanding of machine behavior, and are essential to extending the useful life of the machine. With budgets tightened by low shipping markets, a tighter look at shipboard maintenance and capital replacement costs is warranted.