News Article 20/03/2002

Selling software to shipping

20/03/2002 - Digital Ship

Dimitris Lyras, managing director of shipowners Lyras Shipping and also of maritime software company Ulysses Systems, is a firm believer in making software easy to use.

"Don't put everything on one screen, its too complex," he said. "If you leave your desk and go to the bathroom and come back, you won''t know where you left off."

Software can make it easier by automatically filling in as many fields in the on screen forms as they can. "A lot of the questions the systems ask about have to be put in every time," he said. "Who you are, what your problem is, what components you are talking about."

Companies should make software which provides information users want to know. For example, people in vessel sale and purchase just want to know if there have been any problems with the generators, they don''t want a list of data about when the generators were maintained. The defect list is much more important than the schedule of maintenance.

One of the most important features which makes software easy to use is an effective document indexing system, he said. Since many different people will be using the same system, it is very important to make it easy for people to find out where people have been before them.

Onboard procurement systems need to have photographs of all the supplies seafarers might choose to buy, because otherwise seafarers will find it easier to use a print catalogue which does have photographs in it.

"The chief engineer will tell you that the inventory system is ten times harder to use than a book if it doesn't have photographs in it," he said.

If onboard inventory management systems are not kept up to date, they are next to useless, he said. "No-one believes it. People say, I don't trust the guy before me. I don't think he kept a padlock on the storeroom."

Mr Lyras suggested that more communication between shipowners about which systems work the best would be very helpful. "A lot of people are buying a solution which someone else applied and failed," he said.

"Ask shipmanagers for their advice [before buying software]. Their margins are lower and their interest in productivity of the people is higher," he said.

"Why is everybody trying to invent his own road? I think you have to ask the shipmanagers," he said. "The shipmanager optimises every labour intensive task. The more he optimises his labour, the more he keeps his management fee as profit."

Appeasing the shipowners

Selling software for shipping involves appeasing the shipowners, who make the decision about buying it, he said. "Your principals have to decide what it is you're gonna do and what the benefit is to them."

"You're going to have to deal with a board or individual who's going to want to know something very simple: what is it going to do for them on the bottom line. Its best to ask the principals what exactly they want."

One problem is that shipowners typically want software which performs every possible task (maintenance, crewing, purchasing, document management) and want it all integrated, and there are very few software companies which offer a complete integrated onboard solution.

"The issue comes to mind, which company in the world will have built everything all at the same time and integrated it all," he said. "Most shipping IT companies find a small niche opportunity, go into it very quickly and dominate it. Everything integrated doesn''t come up. They don''t do an integrated system because they can''t break into the market that way."

"They can make an integrated system if they've been around for 30 years. But people who've been around for 30 years have worked out where the money is and stick with it. Planned maintenance systems are established. They've been around for 25 years."

Ship shore communications

Mr Lyras was sceptical about whether shipowners could be persuaded to pay for Inmarsat Fleet terminals to be fitted onboard ships. "With Inmarsat Fleet, it could be that when you've paid a few tens of thousands of dollars to install it, you have a lighter software installation onboard," he said. "But first you have to convince your principals to pay for it. It will be a while before you can get the budget for this."

Mr Lyras questioned how much vessel operational data shipowners really need sent to shore. "Its plausible that a superintendent would like to know what the status of maintenance is on his vessels," he said. "But is this a primary requirement?"

E-mail on ships is more or less widespread. It didn't take much convincing for shipowners to do it as we go down the line of options in IT, he said.

Costs of implementation

The costs of implementing software onboard vessels is extremely high, taking into consideration the costs of installation and seafarer training, and this needs to be taken into account.

"If you're going to go through the process of making a system and training your crewing pool, you have to ask yourself, if the cost of this is substantiated by the benefit? Have you calculated all the cost of putting a system in and do you need all of those parts in there?"

However, forcing seafarers to use a system that they don't want to use is next to impossible. "People don''t want to manage and police software, they want to manage and police ships," he said. "If the crew don''t like the software, you have to accept that they won't use the software."

Shipping companies have a strong incentive to keep using software if all of their seafarers know how to use it, because the costs of training them to use a new software are so enormous. "We have to ascertain what is the disruption form installing software on ships," he said.

"It takes a year to set it up, then you have to send people around the vessels to basically bully them into using it or send them to an academy," he said. "This is the lifecycle cost of the software."

Building in-house

Lyras Shipping built its own planned maintenance system in 1983, but it was built in-house, a decision the company now regrets. "It was one of the most stupid ideas we had to build it in house because we have to maintain it."

"We didn't put computers onboard because we didn't think we could persuade our chief engineers to navigate our system," he said. "We were right. We couldn't even find people in the office who could navigate it. But we did have the person who built it and he's still doing that now.