Maersk Tankers, with more than 80 tankers in its fleet, is currently in the process of rolling out a new communications infrastructure on board its ships. The key focus of this project is simple – work with one single supplier that can take responsibility for the entire system.
Digital Ship spoke to Ken Gregers Larsen, Maersk Tankers, about the progress to date
In operation since 1928, Maersk Tankers is one of the oldest and most established players in the tanker market, with a fleet over 80-strong. In the tanker market, operational goals like predictability and reliability can be critically important in keeping ships running efficiently and safely, while also making sure that they are helping the business to be as competitive as possible. IT and communications can play a major role in ensuring that these goals can be met and that a fleet is performing as close to the optimum as possible, with better and more cost effective communications creating the potential for significant improvement. Recently, Maersk Tankers embarked on a major project to roll out a new communications platform across the majority of its fleet, with the aim of improving its onboard facilities while also simplifying management and control of its infrastructure.
Ken Gregers Larsen, IT project manager at Maersk Tankers, spoke to Digital Ship about the communications platform that is currently being rolled out to its ships, and what the goals of the project were. “We wanted to implement a communication platform that was fully supported by one supplier, so that service and support would be simple to handle for our vessel IT support,” he told us. “We wanted to have a fixed price, with stable and good quality communications services. That was kind of the starting point for the project.”
“The project was and still is mainly driven by cost savings that go hand in hand with much better services than what we had previously.” The beginning of Maersk Tankers’ new communications infrastructure roll-out stretches back to the summer of 2014, when a successful initial pilot project was conducted, and progress has been steady since then. The complete current communications setup being rolled out to the ships includes dual satellite antennas, a controller and a communications management system, while some modification of the existing internet infrastructure onboard is also required. The company has been able to learn from its experiences introducing these technologies as the project has continued, tweaking and fine-tuning the implementation process. As a result, Mr Larsen is confident that rollout should be completed by the end of this year.
“The project is still ongoing. We started in the summer of 2014 with a pilot rollout on four vessels, and we’re currently ramping up the implementation process. The project comprises approximately 80 plus vessels, and we expect to complete the rollout by the end of 2015,” he explained. “We can roll out one vessel per week. It’s very standardised now. We prepare a lot of configuration on shore side, while on the vessel side we provide cables and penetration kits, and the crew will take care of cabling preparations, mounting of pedestals if that is required, and those sorts of things. So one per week is the rate that we can roll out.”
As Mr Larsen already mentioned, a key focus for Maersk Tankers in proceeding with this project was being able to create a communications infrastructure that could be supported entirely by a single supplier. The supplier chosen to provide its communications services was Navarino, which also introduced its new Infinity Plus platform to the tanker company as an option to act as the central control point for the onboard architecture. According to Mr Larsen, while this kind of communications management system was not a major consideration for the company at the beginning of the project, the features that it has made available are now being seen as “a very nice added bonus.”
“As I said, the initial focus of the project was not so much the controller, but getting a full service communication platform managed by one supplier. Infinity Plus was offered as part of the package from our satcoms supplier,” he told us. “Other management systems were actually introduced as alternatives, but the ease of operation, the management features, and the flexibility of the manufacturer led us to choose to stay with Infinity.”
“What’s really nice about it is that you have centralised management, a very good overview with the Infinity Hub, with the complete feature set in one solution, and we don’t have to have different providers offering different management options.” Infinity Plus manages satellite web connectivity while providing functions such as firewalling and routing, compression, file synchronisation, e-mail, and VoIP communication between ship and shore. The hardware consists of a rack-mounted server with a 64-bit Intel Core processor, allowing for the remote setup of new virtual machines and for the installation of software applications within them, meaning applications can be deployed and tested without the need for additional hardware onboard. “What we really like about it is that it contains a comprehensive set of features and functions that cover the access that we need to offer in modern communications throughout our fleet of commercial vessels,” said Mr Larsen. “We have centralised management of all our user accounts, internet security, telephony and internet access, usage control, and file transfer. So it has turned out to be a very nice way of handling all these different aspects of modern communications for a vessel environment.”
The improved communications and network management that Maersk Tankers has introduced is now beginning to enable better coordination between ship and shore. With the energy market in a constant state of flux, the tanker business needs to be able to react to changes quickly, often altering routes and destinations depending on market conditions and anticipated price swings. As such, tankers need a clear line of communication with shore that can handle data heavy traffic such as file transfers and route updates.
“In general, for the vessels we have commissioned so far we have very positive feedback, with stability, increased bandwidth and quality of service. A lot of communication is based on file exchange between shore and vessel, and this is noticeably better,” Mr Larsen explained. “The shore application teams have had much less incidents with these services, and that has really reduced our operational handling errors and miscommunications, things like that.”
“We haven’t at this point introduced new applications, but what we have noticed, is that when we are doing updates of existing applications, it’s much easier with the new platform. We are actually now looking into different ways of doing folder replication by means of Infinity Plus, which will make it a lot easier for vessel IT support to transfer application files and data packages between the shore and vessels. That’s definitely a benefit we’ve seen on the operational side.”
It’s not just Maersk Tankers’ own shore side operations that are benefiting from the new platform. Suppliers are also being provided with a degree of controlled access to remotely service and troubleshoot onboard issues via a dedicated network – a feature which should help in keeping systems running as close as possible to their optimal level, while also maintaining the security of the network.
“We (have introduced) a supplier LAN which allows suppliers to have easier remote access when we have onboard systems that need to be serviced,” said Mr Larsen. “We have chosen to have different configurations for different kinds of services, so applications onboard that need internet access are doing so through the supplier LAN where we are limiting the number of sites and services that can be accessed for each port on the supplier LAN. We are managing that very closely so that it only serves the purpose of that particular PC that is connected.”
“When we have shore-based services that need to monitor or troubleshoot an application, we can give them access by means of different remote access services so that for a limited amount of time they can access a PC onboard. It’s done in a very controlled way, with access to just one particular PC onboard, so that gives us a lot of flexibility on the service side.” While business operations remain the core function of any onboard communications system in commercial shipping, crew welfare is also playing an increasingly important role. Crew expectations with regard to onboard comms have grown in line with developments in satellite technology, and the evolution of VSAT in particular has meant many crews now expect data speeds and allowances that were unimaginable just a few years ago. As a Danish company with a large, predominantly high-skilled workforce, Maersk has a history of putting an emphasis on crew welfare, and Maersk Tankers is no different in this regard. Mr Larsen explained that each crew member receives a set daily data allowance while onboard, provided by the company at no cost to the crew.
“I think that Maersk Tankers have, in general, always had good crew communications offerings onboard, but the main purpose of the project was to ensure strong and reliable communications to support the daily business,” he told us. “This is in terms of internet, data exchange, communications for medical emergencies, but we also consider our crew offerings of very high importance and focus on offering the crew a high daily internet allowance at no cost. They are allowed to use it freely for any web service they want within the applied category filtering that the Infinity box offers.”
“At the same time we have been focusing a lot on offering cheap crew call services, where we’re actually giving crew access to call friends and loved ones at the same low rates as Maersk Tankers have for business calls. So we can say that it’s two sides of service requirements. There’s both very strong support for the business side, and we still think that we can offer very good crew services in terms of internet access and cheap calls.”
Maersk Tankers provides the crew with a daily allowance of 150MB for internet traffic, which they can use freely within the bounds of the filters built in to the communications management system, and also has two dedicated phone lines on the ships for crew calling. “In fact, we actually had Navarino make a special change so that we could offer crew calls within the same negotiated prices that we get for Maersk tankers. So that’s given us really favourable prices for crew calling, and of course it’s very popular with the crew,” said Mr Larsen.
The daily 150MB allowance is managed centrally by Infinity Plus, alongside the business critical operations. Crew members can sign on using their own devices, and access is regulated according to preassigned filters and data limits set by Maersk Tankers. Totaling approximately 4.5GB over a month, the data allowance stacks up well beside monthly data packages supplied by terrestrial mobile phone operators, for example, which typically range from 100MB up to 20GB, though while most people on land avail of Wi-Fi while at work and at home, and generally only use their data allocation while on the move, the crew onboard a ship will be held strictly to the 150MB. As a result, and despite the relative novelty of substantial daily data allowances, Mr Larsen says crews have had no difficulty using up their quotas.
“Most of the time it seems that crew are typically using up their allowance. It’s been extremely popular and we can see a huge consumption for crew welfare on the system. And of course that’s one of the reasons why we implemented the new sys tem,” he told us. “We have made an interface to our crewing system so that we can manage crew changes. When crew sign on and off, we need to assign them to the right vessel with regard to crew services, so we have chosen to do an interface that manages that for us.”
With a project of this size, rollout will not only take an extended period of time but will also generally come with the inevitable teething problems that accompany all major IT implementations. However, despite some minor early issues, Mr Larsen says that the project has been largely free from setbacks, and the process has been streamlined as lessons have been learned along the way. Once rollout is complete, he says that the next step will be to maximise use of Infinity Plus, and introduce some of the features that Maersk Tankers has not yet embraced.
“When you implement complex technology like this, in a complex environment, you always have to be well prepared, and there are definitely places where we could have been better prepared, where we have had to make adjustments along the way,” Mr Larsen explained. “I think that learnings from the first vessel enabled us to do various blueprints that made it easier to clean up and standardise. So now the implementations are much smoother, but I think that’s typical.”
“We are not yet fully utilising the Infinity Plus feature set. I’m sure that a number of features will be introduced at a later stage, but right now we’ve been focusing on harvesting the low-hanging fruit. One thing we would like to see improved is user access rights to the Infinity Hub. For instance, sometimes it could be beneficial to have a captain on a vessel go deeper into various reports on phone or internet usage, but we’re discussing this with Navarino and they’re typically very fast on responding when we have requirements.”
Emissions monitoring and fuel efficiency have been other key drivers of growth in data usage in recent years, and while oil prices have dropped significantly in the last 12 months, efficiency gains remain a primary focus for Maersk Tankers. The company has just recently launched a new project to further optimise in this area, in which the new communications platform will play a key role.
“Maersk Tankers always takes the matter of fuel efficiency very seriously, and we have already a number of systems in place to monitor and to manage our fuel efficiency. In addition we have actually just launched a new project that will further increase our focus on optimal fuel efficiency,” Mr Larsen told us.
“The new communications system is expected to play a major role in this project, and it’s already capable of sending vessel location, heading and velocity data. With the new supplier LAN we consider it to be much easier to connect various appliances that can support data acquisition and delivery – much easier for the people on shore monitoring fuel efficiency and vessel operations in general.”
Looking further ahead, Maersk Tankers expects that the new platform will allow for even greater integration between ship and shore, to the point that vessels become simply an extension of the shore side office, with little or no limitations on what can be achieved while at sea. According to Mr Larsen, the goal is to reach a point where any IT operation that is typically carried out in one of the company’s offices can be replicated by a Maersk Tanker traversing an ocean. “We have a number of different IT projects under consideration, and there’s no doubt that the quality speed and stability of our new communications platform will allow us to do much more, and be more creative in our choice of systems and services,” he told us. “I can say that Maersk Tankers, from the point of view of IT services, we would like to consider our vessels as just another office. It’s on the sea, but it has similar requirements, and should be receiving similar services, as our offices on shore.” “The most important thing is to provide good and stable connectivity service and fast troubleshooting for our vessels on the IT side, and other areas that can benefit from the improved IT services onboard. It’s important not to disturb good seamanship and running the business to high professional standards. That’s what we want IT to enable us to do.”