Challenges in implementing technology in shipbuilding
Innovation in shipbuilding: March 2018
The future of shipbuilding is exciting. There are so many innovative technologies currently converging that we have incredible opportunities to positively transform our businesses. However, we have to be realistic; there are several challenges that need to be overcome first. If you want to be successful, you will have to find a way to address each.
Not knowing your real business
What few shipbuilders appreciate enough is that adopting innovative technologies and implementing them to their fullest potential requires a business transformation. Alternatively, the companies that do recognise how technology could revolutionise things are often afraid of how disruptive that would be.
In fairness, this attitude is not exclusive to shipbuilders. Indeed, the technology industry itself furnishes many examples of resistance to innovation. For example, a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera but Kodak was too slow to capitalise on it since it would involve too much change. They not only opposed a business transformation; they thought it was unnecessary. They thought their business was capturing images on film; they did not realise that their true business, or at least the business that they should really be in, was capturing memories.
Could shipbuilding be like that? Is a naval architecture/marine engineering firm in the business of producing drawings, or is it in the business of producing information needed to build a ship, or perhaps something else? Is a shipbuilder in the business of creating metal vessels, or is it in the business or creating floating structures? Or, to get more extreme, is a shipbuilder more fundamentally in the transportation business? If you start thinking through the implications of what business you are truly in, it will guide your technology choices. You will also recognise the importance of a complete business transformation. Unfortunately, not enough companies are doing this.
Info stuck in silos
Those that are aware of the nature of their business and choose technology to support it frequently underestimate just how complex a challenge implementing technological change is in our industry. One reason for the complexity is that each department has silos of information that would have to be harmonised. Naïve outside consultants note that other industries have various departments with independent databases and these challenges are being overcome. What they fail to appreciate is that it is not the number of diverse sources of information that is the only challenge (though, the number of separate databases at a shipyard could be an order of magnitude greater than what is in common in other industries.) The bigger issue is the number of connections between all these silos of data. The number of connections makes it exponentially more complex to harmonise the information. It is like comparing a human to a simple mustard seed. A mustard seed has 25,000 genes while humans have thousands less. However, the human genes have all sorts of connections between them while the mustard seed genes have comparatively few. It is like that in shipbuilding. In our industry, there is an enormous number of connections between different databases because unlike in almost any other industry, we are designing, constructing and procuring at the exact same time. It is quite a challenge integrating the databases regarding all those functions.
Paycheck to paycheck
Another issue is the fact that in shipbuilding, payment is based on certain parts of the ship being constructed. Because payment is based on reaching those milestones, there is less incentive to invest in a highly detailed “Digital Twin” which is needed to successfully use the new technologies under discussion. Ship owners often admit they could derive enormous benefit in operations and maintenance by having a digital twin. However, if they are only focused on paying for a physically constructed object, there will be little money for proper digital twin creation.
Nevertheless, some shipbuilders will argue that they have found a way to overcome these obstacles and are adopting technology and becoming more digital. Perhaps they are, to a certain extent. However, there is a difference between digitising your current processes and optimising technology. It is like a company that scans paper roadmaps. That has some advantages in terms of portability and searchability, but it does not have the power of Google Maps, for instance. Shipbuilders need to think through how they can best implement innovations instead of using technology for tasks they have always done with ease.
Then, there is the issue of legacy systems and data. Even if a company does decide to take full advantage of new capabilities, a company is still tied to its past. This is particularly a challenge in shipbuilding because shipbuilders are frequently contractually required to be able to access old information which is often in legacy systems using old hardware. Upgrading this and migrating data would be costly and in many cases these old systems lack the data required for new technology. Fixing this requires more money so there is a temptation to try to use two systems at once which creates its own issues. It is possible to overcome this problem but it is quite a challenge.
Picking a platform is a challenge
Picking the right software platform, upon which to base innovative technology, is also not easy. This is a challenge for several reasons. Firstly, there are few shipbuilding specific software platforms so costly customization is required which soon becomes obsolete. And once you pick a platform, it is difficult to switch away in order to pivot your business. Indeed, the reality is, shipbuilding is so complex that no single software platform will ever be able to do everything required. There is no software that can cover all aspects of the Digital Twin and never will be. You will have to use multiple software platforms which creates other issues. Programs have overlapping capabilities so it is tricky determining when to use which one. Compounding the challenge is the fact that most platforms lack an open architecture; they have proprietary formats so sharing data between them is difficult. Remember, before you can have robots building things, and 3D printers creating structures, they have to be fed with data and every department in the shipyard, from purchasing to production, has to be coordinated. Out of necessity everyone is, and will be, using unintegrated software and will be for a long time to come. This will make implementing new technology harder than one might think.
People and process problems
Above all, implementing anything new involves issues with people and inadequate processes. Perhaps there is not enough buy-in from the appropriate stakeholders at all levels of the organisation. Perhaps there is insufficient input from everyone affected. Perhaps there is insufficient budget, or time, or a lack of prioritisation. Maybe there are unclear objectives or a lack of knowledge. Perhaps there is a lack of clear communication and perhaps there is distrust. Organisational culture is so important. A company has to have the willingness to embrace change and everyone has to work as a team for the best interest of the company, even if it is not in the interest of a particular person. Creating this kind of culture is tough.
Is there a solution?
The point of listing all the challenges above is not to scare you, but rather to prevent you from failure. A complete analysis of how each of them might be solved is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is possible to give an overview of a few practical steps that can be taken to move your organisation forward in implementing new technology. First of all, you need to have a clear vision, a sensible strategy, then focus on a realistic goal. When developing a Digital Twin for example, a sensible first step could be to 3D model more items or have a strategy to combine all production planning information with 3D. That would be realistic.
As far as project management goes, getting the people, process and tools right is essential and you have to start with people. Identify champions, include end-users early, work towards creating an open culture and stress that while there should be lots of healthy debate during the decision-making phase, once a decision has been made, the entire team has to commit to move forward. You should map your existing processes and create a high level overview of where you want to end up. Then, you should use an ‘agile’ methodology of incrementally taking steps toward your goal, testing your riskiest assumptions as soon as possible, and learning as you go.
There is a lot of excitement regarding how shipbuilding will change in the next year or so and not enough appreciation of the challenges that must be overcome first. Nevertheless, companies that take the right steps now can build towards a future that will perhaps be even better than the wildest predictions of today.