Head of Engineering, Derek Tang, explains that with the use of cloud technology in their solution, PROPELLER, on shore teams can easily check on their fleet’s inventory data through their browser-based interface and drill down information from fleet level to inventory information of individual assets. This empowers the team with accurate data to make procurement and logistic decisions quickly.
It has been an exciting journey with SparesCNX. From the beginning it has been our mission to build a solution to support the shipping industry’s goals of operating lean, and mitigating risk.
I have been working in technology for many years, with a specialisation in IoT, and the maritime industry has provided me with an exciting set of challenges.
It has reaffirmed my belief that building a product to have maximum utility is not about using the most advanced technology, but the most suitable technology.
The Unique Vessel Environment
When we started building the solution, the first thing we tackled was the inconsistent connectivity onboard. Vessels sailing the world rely on satellites for their access to the internet, and the reliability of this can be impacted by a number of conditions (most of which are beyond anyone’s control).
To build a robust solution, we had to take into account the fact that there may be periods lasting from a few seconds to a few days where there is no connectivity. At the same time, we needed to allow for the fact that even at the best of times, the bandwidth available would be low, so our solution needed to be as lean as possible in terms of its data requirements.
The product with which we have gone to market includes all the hardware necessary to be self-sufficient on a vessel: we provide the server to host our software applications, the portable Propeller tablets which are the onboard users’ primary touchpoint to be used in most areas of the vessel, and our own onboard wifi network to connect the tablets with the server.
Bringing The Cloud To The Ocean
The traditional software used on vessels is single machine based, and there is limited data exchange with the outside world.
Our product architecture brings the best of standalone software and cloud technology together.
We decided to use the IoT hub and edge concept to build the solution. Every server on the vessel is an edge device, managed by the IoT hub. As such, we convert whole fleets into a huge ocean faring IoT networks.
By leveraging cloud technology, we bring manageability and scalability to the solution. Everything is configurable through the cloud. The data synchronization and software updates are managed by the infrastructure layer to offload excess burden from the application itself.
Cloud implementations allow us to leverage most fitting modern technology. Our software is fully built on micro-services, so each module can be updated separately for individual vessels, a group of vessels, or the whole fleet, depending on the requirements. We also have implemented serverless modules as part of our solution, in order to maximize the flexibility within the system.
A Few Key Considerations
Using cloud technology doesn’t solve all our challenges automatically, but it creates a framework for more innovative and effective combinations of tech components.
We carefully chose the most appropriate technology combinations, and I believe made smart decisions about the SparesCNX architecture in order to ensure that we are using the available technology in the way that brings the most value for our customers and users.
As I mentioned above, data synchronization is a big consideration. By choosing a suitable database and synchronization scheme, we managed to encapsulate the complexity in the data layer. The only thing we need to manage at the level of the application layer is error handling when there any data integrity issue.
Data bandwidth also needed to be investigated carefully.
Cloud technologies tend to assume a good internet environment, and strong bandwidth. It is not usually an issue for a broadband environment, but with satellite internet, connectivity often suffers.
We optimized the edge and IoT hub in order to reduce the volume of data transmission. Only critical data are exchanged between the edge and the cloud to maintain as low a bandwidth usage as possible. This had the additional effect of improving system stability, even during periods of internet blackout.
Being tolerant to being offline is a must for the vessel environment.
For all the features we have implemented, we are always mindful that the internet connection might be not available for days at a time. Therefore, whenever possible we always use the local data source available on the vessel instead of asking for data from the cloud. For the information that has to be acquired from the cloud, we always make the information ready early enough, together with an error handling case to prevent data inconsistency.
Most importantly, our solution handles all this without interfering with the usage of the Propeller tablet by the Engineers on board.
Bring The Data To Life
One of the key benefits of the cloud is the capacity for powerful data analysis and visualization tools.
With the data available on the cloud, the on shore teams (Procurement Directors, Fleet Directors, Superintendents) can easily look into their fleet’s inventory data through our browser based interface. They are able to drill down from the fleet level, to a group of vessels, and to the inventory information of individual vessels.
This empowers the team with an accurate understanding of their inventory on hand, and gives them the ability to optimize their procurement, maintenance, and logistics activities accordingly.
Looking at our solution as it now stands, we have very much achieved our original goal for a stable, scalable solution on the vessel.
We are using the cloud wherever suitable, but have combined this with various other elements, old and new, in order to fulfill the requirements of the project within the limitations presented by the specific and difficult environment on board commercial vessels.
There are always a lot of exciting new technologies around to be used to solve problems such as these, but the devils are in the details in terms of how to optimise them to make a great solution.