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Ulysses Systems founder discusses 'How To Engage Shipowners In Software'

How to Engage Shipowners in Software

The current article “How to Engage Shipowners in Software”, by Dimitris Lyras,  arose from a Digital Ship webinar.  “Integrated modular digital components for vessel performance – part 2”, hosted by Karl Jeffery of Digital Ship, took place October 12, 2023. And the speakers were Dimitris Lyras, Paralos Maritime, Ari Marjamaa, Raa Labs and Casimir Morobé, Toqua.

“Shipowners do not generally care much about maritime software. This may be because it is rarely presented to them in a way which helps them understand how they will benefit”.

“To get shipowners interested in software, they need to see that it will help take care of specific aspects of the complexity of operating ships, and that their staff can readily understand it.”

Dimitris Lyras
Director of Paralos Maritime, and founder of maritime software company Ulysses Systems

A ship owning background

Dimitris Lyras has a ship owning background. And his family origins make him part of a network of shipowning families from the Northern Aegean. Reportedly, shipowners from the Greek islands of Chios and Oinousses control a substantial percentage of Greek shipping. So the question ‘How to Engage Shipowners in Software?’ is not an indifferent one or unimportant. For Dimitris, software innovation should not be an imposition but a dialogue with the shipowner.
In this article we hear him reporting on and analysing shipowners’ interest in IT. It is pragmatism that undescores their interest. Essentially, this means IT must prove it can perform well in specific aspects of the work of operating ships.

Interest

“Shipowners are likely to show the biggest interest in maritime software products, developed by individuals who are personally focused on trying to be the best at doing a certain maritime task” He goes on to say that shipowners want to know “the people they’re going to do business with”. And to discern that they “are totally invested in what they do. They also will expect these are people to “have thought about what they do in more ways than you could imagine.”

Because “If a software company is trying to put its arms around everything and trying to specialise in everything, doing a bit of this and bit of that, it’s not going to work”.

Therefore, maritime IT companies need to be able to make it very clear to shipowners what their products do. If shipowners do not personally understand the software, they may feel they must employ their own IT experts to work out if something has a value to them. This, in effect, adds an additional complexity to getting to a purchase decision.

IT people

IT people may have got in the habit of presenting technology in a manner designed to appeal to investors rather than customers, he opines. For example, an investor may be more interested in a product, which contains analytics or AI. But for shipowners, this could sound like jargon and could be a turn-off. Because owners want to see efficient ways to solve their problems and ensure their whole staff can understand and engage.

That does not mean IT companies need to make their products sound simple. Shipowners recognise that their challenges are complex and so may need complex solutions. But they probably will not want to involve themselves in the complexity. Instead, they want to engage with service providers who can take care of it for them.

Showing software based on how the software manages complexity

Showing software based on how it manages complexity offers shipowners the opportunity for a convincing appraisal of the software. And its the best reply to the question of how to engage shipowners in software.

“The issue is how clearly can we (software providers) show we are taking care of the complexity. The owner wants to know that there’s a method. That we will not lose track. And we will not be blaming someone else. The owner wants to know we will take care and the whole solution is going to work.” There are two sides to the complexity. One is that the software provider knows and can manage the complexities shipowners face. Secondly, the provider can communicate to the shipowner that managing complexity is not obvious in software. The latter is not so simple. However, it is important. Because shipowners must own software that responds to their working needs. And “we must show that it (the software) is in good hands.”

Selling software based on what it can do

Whereas selling software based on what it can do is difficult. Because nobody has much understanding of what good maritime software looks like. And it takes many years for the right solution to emerge in all its maturity.

For example, we do not yet know which aspects of vessel performance software are most important for the task of managing the performance of a vessel in operation. And we have had planned maintenance software for about 20 years; yet companies only recognise now what a good system looks like.

Big tech and AI

With big tech companies promoting generative AI tools last year, media hype around big tech and AI thrived. It has been useful to recognise how the big tech industry works, with a few companies trying to get as much control as they can. Their investment in generative AI explains the heavy promotion of their AI offerings.

“But this has nothing to do with the maritime industry. Since they have much bigger industry sectors to serve, it is unlikely that big tech companies will put the effort into understanding the maritime industry.

And the chances that someone from another industry is going to make something that works in our industry are not high.”

Good software for maritime tasks

Making good software for maritime tasks takes a great deal of focus, and it makes sense that a company would focus on just one task. Just as a company which makes car engines does not also make car tyres.

Generative AI can have some value for shipping

Generative AI can have some value for shipping. But its use is confusing, and this makes it difficult for shipowners to gauge its importance. Most likely it will only be part of a software component, not a standalone component. No matter how you use it, it is going to be a small part of what you need.

Introducing a technology that is only going to be a small part of something and hyping it up as something greater confuses people. The result can be that they will disengage.

“Digital integration is like the plumbing in our house”

Dimitris Lyras suggests that digital integration can be seen like the plumbing in our house.
If shipping companies are going to use multiple digital components in future, they are going to need to integrate well. Often integration like plumbing…not a subject which gets people particularly excited, until they have a problem: When it gets very exciting to have someone who is able to fix it!

It is not enough to just have an API

To integrate software, it is not enough to just have an API. You need to know what you are receiving through the API. For example, a job description could have five attributes or fifty attributes. Reducing fifty attributes to five because the receiving system can only handle five is a difficult task. In fact, a computer cannot do this task. Only a domain expert can do so, i.e. an expert in job descriptions.

A process requires a constraint that only experts in the domain know about

Let’s consider another example where a process requires a constraint that only experts in the domain know about. Suppose a data attribute tells you that a certain two tasks cannot be done simultaneously because that would lead to a high risk. If the data attributes are put together by someone who is not a safety domain expert, you may have a big safety risk.

“The ability to join things up isn’t going to work if we don’t understand how the data came about and where it is going. And it is also not going to work if we have to read it in a text file.”

People in shipping companies

People in shipping companies are already overwhelmed. They tell us they have ten systems doing different things and that they feel frustration because they cannot put them together. Clearly, they expect it to be possible to put two software components together. And while this is possible theoretically, it can be very hard to do in practise. Because first you need to have precise and detailed information about what the components are doing.

The software ‘consolidator’

“Perhaps the future holds a new role for software providers; that of a ‘software consolidator’. Dimitris goes on to explain what this role has to offer.  Essentially, a software consolidator would serve to understanding which software components can integrate well, putting them together for the shipowner.

The business model would be like Dell Technologies, putting together electronic components made by other companies to make a functioning computer. Or a shipyard, which, aside from constructing the hull and vessel structure, puts together equipment from many different providers to make a ship.

“This is going to happen in (maritime) software”

“This is going to happen with (maritime) software, I can’t see it happening any other way,” Dimitris reflects.  “It’s likely that software companies will divide themselves into specialists and consolidators.

The shipping industry readily understands the concept of consolidators because it understands this is what shipyards do. Shipboard equipment, such as generators, is also in itself a consolidation of different components.

More than likely integration between software components will become increasingly sophisticated. And so the consolidator will take care of that. Therefore, the integration that I see ahead of us is not just going to be a few APIs and a description of outgoings and ingoings. It will take specialist skills to analyse a software component and say what it can do.”

Information Technology in the maritime industry is another article by Dimitris Lyras that focuses on shipowners and their approach to software and innovation

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