I am a mariner by training, and I work with mariners every day.
I recall starting school and learning about engineering and deck and talking to my father about the wonderful things I could do if I was an engineer. We were taking a class in welding, and finally, after years of being promised we would do ‘cool’ things in chemistry class all throughout high school, we were finally playing with electricity and fire. I said to him:
- Me: “I’m learning how to weld and can be a welder as well” [Side note: I was 18, so, obviously, I thought taking one class was good enough.]
- Him: You don’t want to be a welder; they have machines that automate the process.
Full stop on my dreams to be a welder. To an 18-year-old kid, that was enough to quash any thoughts of that again.
So with that little nugget of reminiscing, I say this knowing full well how it comes across:
The future of shipping is automation.
I spoke of this with a friend who is a teacher at one of the maritime academies. Obviously, their interest is in teaching the future generation, so when I said this, there were obviously a lot of reasons why this COULDN’T be.
But let me reconnect to the anecdote above about welding. I work with welders every day. I know there are some processes that are automated. I also know that there has not been anything developed yet (in the year 2020) to fully replace the welder. So, when my father tells me 20 years ago that I do not want to be a welder because they’re becoming obsolete, its not a universal truth.
So, will mariners be replaced? NO …. but our role is changing. This is the truth as things get more automated and capable of being run remotely. Its uncomfortable to say this to the people who are affected, but that is where I think we need to realize this isn’t something that will just make them unemployed tomorrow.
Fifty years ago, manning on board vessels was well into the 30-40+ range. Now, manning levels are around 20 persons, and minimum manning levels (permitted) are usually around 13-15 persons. So, the progression is evident.
IF WE WANT TO CHANGE, WHY CAN’T WE BE THE LEADERS IN THIS? If we embrace this and change the way we do things, we will come out on top!
The future of shipping is not going to be designed by an automation engineer. The ship will not be run by someone on shore who has never even seen the vessel. Ship’s will never not need people on board doing the work. But it will be a combination of all these things.
The first iteration of this is here. DP vessel’s RIGHT NOW can be run remotely from shore. Engine rooms RIGHT NOW are unmanned for half the day.
If you are a mariner, you have plenty of reasons why this CANNOT happen, I am sure. There are always reasons why things CANNOT be. But, if you can, please envision HOW these things can be. Take some imaginative leaps and bounds with me:
- I would see the first iteration of this allowing for remote control of the vessels, with operators on board only for emergency override purposes. As for the engineers, I envision remotely controlled engine rooms with riding crews for maintenance work only, as the test bed for totally unmanned engine rooms. In this iteration, the vessels are mostly remotely controlled.
- The second iteration would be to cross-train decks and engineers so that the manning can be pushed down even further; they are operators trained to take override and emergency actions. In this iteration, the vessels are hybrid of remote and automated.
- The third iteration would be fully automated, no persons on board. Crews would come on board in port, or, riding ship for maintenance work.
So how can we be the leaders in shipping? Well, the future mariner will not be a mate or engineer . They will be both. We cannot have maritime schools that only train operators, and then leave it up to other engineering institutes to train the designers. There need to be partnerships to build all of this up [and none of this is fast or easy to do]. Our future mariners need to understand automation and how brutal the sea can be. Our future designers need to understand why we still need to tie knots and how to perform FEA’s on structure.
I would like to envision that the Utopian Maritime School would train a cohort of persons to design, build, operate, maintain, and work the commercial aspects of automated shipping. I know its fanciful, but I think there are plenty of reasons why this CAN work.
[Saying this mostly to myself] Now mariners and other marine professionals…let me know what you think.