Making Ships Smart and Connected

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Concept of fast or instant shipping
 

 

The high seas are getting connected. While oceangoing ships now can contact land via radio and satellite, in the future shipping companies will be able to track vessels and many aspects of their operations constantly, in real time.

Smart, connected technology will not just make ships more visible but also should improve safety. The record already is improving: 75 ships went down in 2014 according to the latest data available, the lowest in a decade. When the El Faro container ship was lost in a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015, with 33 crew lost, it took almost a month to find the wreckage.

Still, “it’s not as easy to lose a ship as an airplane,” says Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, senior scientist, maritime transport systems, at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (Marintek) in Trondheim, Norway. “Today not all ships are connected, but it’s increasingly common. The crew needs to be in touch with operations at home and with families.”

Aqua satellite - 3D renderMost big container ships already have high-capacity satellite communications. “They have Internet of Things systems on board to collect data from the ship and send [it] to shore,” he says, adding that demand is strong enough that some satellite operators now focus just on shipping—and coverage is improving, especially on the Atlantic.

One possibility is that connected ships could become autonomous. “The assumption is that ships can operate more-or-less on their own in less traffic or wide fairways. But they would need remote control in congested waters,” Mr. Rødseth says.

An autonomous ship would have to be continuously monitored by a shore control center to make sure all systems are operating correctly and so that human operators could intervene if necessary, he says, similar to metro systems in some cities.

Crew negligence was associated with three of the top five causes of marine insurance claims in 2014, the most recent year for data, according to “Safety and Shipping Review 2015” by Allianz AG. The International Marine Organization tallied 1,051 lives lost in 2012, the most recent data.

Just by removing people from the ship, you remove lots of incidents and deaths in shipping,” Mr. Rødseth says. It could even affect piracy: “If you don’t have a crew on the ship, there’s no one to ransom,” he notes.

Without a crew, a ship could be configured completely differently. The crew space is proportionally greater on smaller ships, such as for inland waterways or coastal shipping. On some vessels, the crew—including cabins, workspaces, kitchen, lifeboats and so on—take up a significant part of the space, he says. Without a captain at the helm, there’s no need for a steering tower, reducing drag. For a 100-meter ship, a crew-free design could result in 25% to 40% energy savings.

Shore crane loading containers in freight shipThe problem is, ships are extremely expensive, so it isn’t possible to just build a prototype of an oceangoing vessel. Instead, inland waterways are likely to be the first movers, because the fleet is old and they are relatively expensive to operate, Mr. Rødseth says. In Belgium, Catholic University of Leuven is part of a group researching autonomous shuttle barges on inland waterways.

Smart, connected technology also is coming to cargo. Intermodal containers have seen improvements, such as refrigeration, since Malcolm P. McLean invented them in 1956. But nobody knows exactly how many containers are lost at sea. The World Shipping Council estimates 675 a year.

Traxens, a Marseille, France, logistics technology company, aims to revolutionize the intermodal container process by better tracking containers remotely.

“Up to now, when ship containers are sent around the world they don’t generate any data automatically,” says Tim Baker, Traxens’ director of marketing and communications. “If a container is taken off a truck or put on rail and if somebody doesn’t note it manually, or if somebody forgets a transfer, then there’s no information system that’s aware of this, and nobody can take corrective action.”

Shipping lines collectively handle 20 million to 25 million containers per year.

If they know where containers are,” Mr. Baker says, “they can optimize resources, reduce transit times.”

They can also eliminate unnecessary trips of empty containers being returned to the shipyard when another empty container is heading to a different customer down the road for loading.

Previous efforts by companies to track containers tended to focus on individual units. “That isn’t scalable,” Mr. Baker says, because the company putting cargo in the container has to get a tracking device, install it, and remove it at the end of the journey, for each of many containers.

Traxens focuses on a solution for the entire industry, using technology-equipped containers that keep their tracking systems for a minimum of three years of battery life. The containers’ sensors monitor temperature, shock, vibration, humidity and so on, and communicate by radio with other containers on the ship to save battery life. Rather than each container transmitting data, the mesh of containers chooses the container best suited for transmitting—good battery level, clear view of the sky—and sends the assembled data to shore periodically using mobile-phone technology.

The shipping industry has reduced unit costs by building bigger ships, but “that way of optimizing has come to an end,” Mr. Baker says. “The next step is data.”

 

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Staying on Top of Change

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

 

Network on cityscape background

Just as humans develop from a single cell and end up with some 13 trillion cells by the time they’re born nine months later, so too do products start with a concept or definition—essentially a single data point.

Whether that definition is expressed as a design on paper or digitally, it represents data, explains Callum Kidd, lecturer and leading configuration management researcher at the University of Manchester, U.K. The data then evolves, matures, is iterated and eventually becomes a defined configuration, which is a collection of more data. That process turns out a product whose use, maintenance, quality and lifecycle may be monitored, generating still more data.

We have created a digital world and [have] become more and more adept at creating data. But we haven’t created awareness of managing data, from creation to disposal,” Mr. Kidd says.

Just as in the single-cell example above, “We create life in data from day one, not by adding in something along the way. True, nature has taken millions of years to perfect this, but we need to learn lessons faster if we are to manage products and systems through life effectively.”

86661501_thumbnailKeeping track of this process can be mind-boggling, due to the many changes along the way—and especially when it involves many partners, suppliers and sub-tier suppliers. This is where configuration management enters the scene.

Configuration management is how we define a configuration, which is essentially data at some level of maturity,” he says. “By evolving that data, and managing changes to it reflecting the evolution of its definition, we create physical structures, or systems. These, however, are just data represented in a physical form. Essentially, we manage [product] design and [product] definition data through life. The validated physical representation is merely proof that the data was valid.

Configuration management is like just-in-time [manufacturing] for data,” he adds. “It gets the right data in the right format to the right people at the right time.”

Configuration management is closely linked with product lifecycle management, or PLM, which follows a product from concept to disposal. But “that’s a one-dimensional, linear view of the world,” Mr. Kidd says. “In reality, we share information backward and well as forward.”

Taking the aerospace industry as an example, “it’s highly possible that due to complex work-share arrangements, we could be managing changes in the design, manufacture and support phases of the life cycle concurrently,” Mr. Kidd says. “This adds considerable complexity in managing the status of data at any point in time. We need to know exactly what we have if we are to manage changes to that data effectively. That is one of our greatest challenges in a modern business environment.”

A survey of more than 500 companies last year, Aberdeen Group, a technology, analytics and research firm based in Waltham, Massachusetts, found that for many companies configuration management remains a manual, handwritten process. Aberdeen separated the companies into “leaders” and “followers,” and found that only 54% of leaders and a mere 37% of followers had automated or digital change management.

Yet, keeping track of frequent engineering changes during the development process is the top challenge, cited by 38% of companies. Among industrial equipment manufacturers, 46% named frequent engineering changes as their biggest challenge.

Changes are amplified by the increased complexity of products themselves. In another report, published in 2015, Aberdeen found a 13.4% increase in the number of mechanical components, a 19.6% climb in the number of electrical components and a 34.4% rise in lines of software code over the previous two years.

“Especially for industrial equipment manufacturers, products are getting more complex and customizable,” says Nick Castellina, vice president and research group director at Aberdeen Group. “Configuration management helps manage the flow of all that data and the lifecycle and needs of the shop floor. It centralizes all the visibility into the needs of each new product being built and how that interacts with any materials you’re trying to get at any stage.”

Visibility is important, because “sometimes it’s the minutest of things that can cause the biggest failures of all,” Mr. Kidd says. Automated configuration management not only ensures that all changes are recorded, along with the reasoning behind them, but also serves as a record in the future of every decision that was made in respect of a configuration’s life.

Businesspeople working togetherChange boards, which gather the relevant stakeholders, are the primary mechanism for approving change in configuration management. These boards are dealing with greater volume of change and complexity of the impact. That’s why “every piece of information in that room is retained and digitized. Notes that somebody makes but doesn’t communicate may be relevant,” Mr. Kidd says. Even emails are archived.

“We live in a litigious society,” he says. “Configuration management can prove you did the right thing, even if in the future a decision is called into question. You can show you made decisions based on the best possible information, and in the knowledge that you understood the status of the configuration at that point—in short, proving that you took due diligence in the process.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

MIT’s experimental 3D-printed sneaker shape-shifts to your foot

By Alyssa
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Byline: Marc Bain

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At the moment, 3D printing is still mostly about experimentation. While it hasn’t quite taken off to revolutionize the way consumer products are made just yet, it does offer a lot of exciting, innovative ideas, especially in the realm of sneakers.

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, a group focused on research into “active” materials, is working in collaboration with product designers Christophe Guberan and Carlo Clopath on one of the most unique footwear possibilities involving 3D printing: It’s a shoe that can be “programmed” to match the contours of your foot.

Their Minimal Shoe, as they’ve dubbed it, is created in a unique process. They stretch out a textile and then 3D-print lines of plastic in varying layers and thicknesses on it—essentially, the structure of the shoe-to-be. Next they cut out the portions of the textile they want. Released from the original stretch, the textile will “jump” into a new shape according to the arrangement of the 3D-printed lines left on it. Hypothetically, you could either custom print a shoe for each wearer with just a few lines of extruded plastic, or you could make a nearly one-size-fits-all shoe, since the stretchy textile will conform to any given shape.

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Skylar Tibbits, one of the directors of the lab and a research scientist in MIT’s architecture department, tells Quartz they’re investigating both possibilities, and that the “morphability” of the textile could make for a more comfortable and adaptable type of performance footwear.

The whole shoe wouldn’t have to be created with this method either. Just the upper could be, or portions of it, and then it could be attached to a more traditional sole. It’s also relatively easy to make, compared to 3D printing an entire sneaker.

“Imagine using active materials to produce one-size-fits-all shoes, adaptive fit, and self-forming manufacturing processes,” a statement by the lab says. “This technique would radically transform the production of footwear forever.

Although the shoe is still a work in progress, Tibbits told The Creator’s Project that a large sportswear company is currently interested in the process, though he isn’t certain what might come of it.

Actually, of all the consumer-goods industries exploring uses of 3D printing and customizable textiles, sneaker makers could well be among the first to bring products to a mass market. Adidas has already introduced a 3D-printed midsole that could give every customer the perfect fit, and Nike’s COO recently expressed his confidence that we’ll soon be able to 3D-print Nike sneakers at home or the nearby Nike store. Both have also shown an interest in finding new ways of manufacturing lightweight textiles that can stretch and contour to the wearer’s foot, as in the knit uppers that have been so popular for both.

The Self-Assembly Lab is working on other projects too, including materials that can transform in response to outside stimuli. So, for instance, something like sneaker laces that could tighten from heat or the energy of a small battery. Currently it’s collaborating with Airbus on creating a dynamic carbon-fiber component for the company’s airplane engines.

The Minimal Shoe in particular came about when the lab received an invite to design footwear for the “Life on Foot” exhibition at the Design Museum in London.

To discuss this and other topics about the future of technology, finance, life sciences and more, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.



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