News Article 01/02/2001

The Odyssey of Ulysses

01/02/2001 - Digital Ship

The market for ship management software may be dominated by large, brutally competitive companies, but the success of small outfits like Ulysses Systems prove that there is room for the small guys too

London's Bloomsbury has always been associated with the act of writing. Back in the Victorian period, it was novels and poetry; today, it's code for software. The ship management software company Ulysses Systems is carrying on that tradition in its London offices on Russell Square.

In a part of the industry which is dominated by giants, Ulysses has carved out a tidy little niche for itself. Task Assistant, its primary application, is easily one of the most user-friendly on today's market, and its unique approach to IT in shipping sets it apart from its competitors.

In a time when "technology for technology's sake" is coming to dominate IT thinking, Ulysses' focus on seafarers and the specific tasks that they have to do is a refreshing change.

The company is now on the verge of releasing version 2.0 of its Task Assistant application, which will include a new planned maintenance, crewing and purchasing module.

It is easiest to envision how Ulysses' software works if you think of Task Assistant as the operating platform on which all of the ship management functions operate. So instead of offering various modules which handle different aspects of ship management " ie. planned maintenance, crew and payroll, inventory, etc. " the company provides the task assistant, which breaks down all necessary functions according to the specific job descriptions of the crewmembers. So there's a section for the chief engineer, the master, the procurement officer, and so on and so forth, for each ship's officer.

Under each job heading there are facilities for keeping track of every single task that a particular crewmember has to perform. For the purposes of helping a crewmember to administrate his tasks there are two headings: "forms and messages" and "support tools". The "Support tool" tool provides the user with all of the forms he will need to fill out over the course of his duties pertaining to a particular task and allows him to create forms related to that task. The "forms and messages" automatically files and stores all the communication that has ever been made relating to the role's tasks. Whenever the user creates a new message or fills out a form which needs to be sent ashore, the software automatically batches it with the ship's other communications, to be sent the next time a satellite link is opened. "Manual Viewer" provides a link to ship manuals and other company documented relevant information.

Users can customise the software if they wish, for example to add a new job description or to reassign a certain task to another person. But according to Panteleimon Pantelis, chief business engineer for Ulysses, customers find that they usually do not need to re-label or reassign tasks, a fact which he attributes to Ulysses' extensive shipping knowledge. After all, Ulysses itself was founded by a shipping company, Lyras Shipping, and many of its employees have actually spent time at sea.

The other key aspect of Ulysses' software is that it serves as an ideal tool for ISM compliance because it keeps historical records of every form that has been filled out, every message that has been received and sent and every task that has been done on board the ship. According to Jenny Pantelis, business engineer, the system creates a highly valuable "corporate memory" which can be used to ensure ISM compliance, as well as to provide companies with easily accessible records of their own activities.

But put quite simply, Ulysses is about helping seafarers to do their jobs. As Panteleimon Pantelis points out, Ulysses' planned maintenance system is not there to tell the chief engineer how to do his job. It's there to provide him with all the tools he needs to carry out the ship's planned maintenance programme. The software doesn't tell him what to do; he tells it what to do.

It's an ingenious way of approaching ship management software, and when one thinks about it, startlingly obvious. And yet Ulysses is one of the very few companies that has chosen to do things this way.

"We help people to spend less time fiddling with software and more time in the engine room where they belong," says Pantelis. "Crew aren't interested in one system talking to another; they just want to be able to get on with their jobs."

Luckily for them, that's precisely what Ulysses is here to do.