Well Worn

spreads_well_wornThe need for better human-machine interfaces in shipping is oft-repeated, but as automation accelerates wearables could be the missing link.

You might be wearing one right now. Maybe a FitBit or a Withings Pulse, or indeed an Apple iWatch, one of the burgeoning number of devices that will allow you to track your own health and exercise with a precision and consistency that only existed in the hospital setting until a few years ago.

The trend underlying the development of these highly sophisticated pieces of tech is called the ‘Quantified Self’, and it’s at the forefront of what’s going to be a revolution in the way societies measure, manage and maintain the health of the individuals within them.

But the chunky pieces of plastic and metal we’re wearing on our wrists aren’t even the beginning of the story. From new kinds of materials featuring embedded computing, to medical tattoos we are turning our bodies into cyber-physical systems—or to use the far more emotive term, cyborgs. The ultimate expression of the marriage between human and machine.

So it should come as no surprise that when we talk about the new world of Industry 4.0 and the development of state of the art human machine interfaces which are going to be necessary, wearables should be an obvious part of that equation.

In the very first issue of The Maritime Future magazine back in October 2013 I wrote about how these new devices could open the door to new, more accurate and more sophisticated ways of managing the health and fitness of our seafarers. But they offer a far broader opportunity, and one company is showing the maritime industry how.

The likelihood is that you won’t have heard of Intoware, or its WorkfloPlus solution. But it’s high time you did. Intoware develop Human Process Management (HPM) applications designed to improve workplace productivity, and they’re at the forefront of world-leading research into how wearable tech can improve performance in manufacturing, operations and Maintenance Repair and Operations (MRO).

For an industry struggling to map out a future for its crew where shipboard equipment and operations are increasingly being automated the type of Human Machine Interface (HMI) applications that can integrate crew into those increasingly digital workflows—and work seamlessly across every platform from desktop to mobile, to wearables—should be at the top of the list. With their solution already in use by at least one Tier One operator, I had a chat with CEO and Co-Founder of Intoware Keith Shipton, about what they do and why the maritime industry should be interested.

KDA: Keith, can you explain what human process management is, and why you’re involved in it?

Keith Shipton: Human Process Management (HPM) is an area of Business Process Management (BPM) that looks at the tasks mainly performed by people, with a view to improving performance, efficiency and compliance. Historically business processes have been taken away from humans and automated to achieve economies of scale and to collect valuable data for commercial advantage.

The tasks that people still do have largely been left outside of the ‘digital loop’ – but the emergence of smart devices and the IoT have created the opportunity and the necessity for businesses to move away from inefficient and opaque paper based processes, in favour of the clarity and consistency only achievable by converting to a fully digital enterprise model. Intoware’s WorkfloPlus converts any form, checklist or human process into step-by-step digital instructions that can be deployed in minutes to any smart device.

By using WorkfloPlus all human workplace activity can now be digitally recorded and analysed providing obvious benefits in Health & Safety, mitigating risk, increasing productivity and reducing waste.

KDA: Can you give us some background about the genesis of the company?

Keith Shipton: Intoware was originally a wholly owned subsidiary of Kopin Corporation, a NASDAQ listed manufacturer of high-tech microdisplays for the defence industry and audio visual sector. Kopin used the Intoware team to write viable applications for wearable technology prototypes such as the Golden-I Headset Wearable Computer.

This background in wearable technology set Intoware apart from its competitors as one of only a few software developers worldwide with human process applications that could work across any platform from desktop through mobile to wearables. In October 2015 James Woodall, the CTO and I led an MBO resulting in the company we are today with Kopin retaining a 17.5% stake.

KDA: We’re talking about Industry 4.0 and the fact that global businesses are about to integrate their operations into a seamless digital whole. We describe shipping’s evolution as part of Industry 4.0 as the new Blue Logistics channel. Does a solution like yours basically allow people to become an integral part of these new cyberphysical systems?

Keith Shipton: Absolutely. We are members of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) a JV between Sheffield University and Boeing. The AMRC have built the Factory 2050 complex in Sheffield to focus on Industry 4.0 and IIoT principles which require digital instructions to control production processes.

WorkfloPlus at base performance is a powerful tool for digitalising any workforce but at peak performance it can operate as a Human Machine Interface (HMI) at the core of any Industry 4.0 based operation that requires end-to-end human/machine integrated processes. We have recently presented our HMI capability at the launch of Factory 2050 and subsequently to Roll Royce Engines.


KDA: You’ve sold your solution into a tier 1 ship operator—if you don’t want to name them that’s fine—assuming that this is the first time that you’ve worked with a shipping/maritime company, what’s your view of the industry and its technology‐awareness, readiness and deployment?

Keith Shipton: As you say our client is a major force in shipping and also in the energy sector. Because our solutions fundamentally solve key operational problems, you can appreciate why high profile enterprise companies are not keen to publicise them.

Our experience so far is that the awareness of the advantages of digital technology in the shipping sector is high and many enterprise level organisations have individuals or teams of tech-savvy people dedicated to seek out innovative solutions.

There are several key challenges common to most sectors but particularly shipping where margins are being squeezed and existing customs and practices are long established: Firstly, relating the general benefits of a solution to the specific needs of a division within a complex business structure is important and requires detailed knowledge of how an operation functions. We have experienced shipping industry professionals who advise us on the nuances of the sector. We have learned that although we can fix multiple problems with WorkfloPlus, it is best to bite off small chunks and to build relationships step by step.

The first workflow could just be for damage reporting or emergency exit checks but these can soon lead to the adoption of a complete digital Health & Safety process across an enterprise and then onto multi-departmental adoption solving a broad range of human process challenges.

Secondly, ensuring our software complements or talks to other legacy systems is also important—there is no point in cobbling together multiple ‘new’ technologies that don’t or can’t exchange data—our solutions have open APIs ensuring we can link to any enterprise system and quickly add value.

Thirdly, justifying the time and behavioural adjustment it takes to adopt a new way of working, as well as the ROI that is realistically achievable, is probably the most important challenge. But the proliferation of smart devices—there are now 10BN worldwide—means that most people are familiar with using apps these days and our solutions are compatible with any desktop, mobile or wearable device, including ATEX compliant technology, so that the barriers to adoption are now negligible.

Regarding ROI, our solution WorkfloPlus differs dramatically from other enterprise apps in that it is a ‘toolkit’ that allows the customer to design and deploy their own workflows or ‘mini-apps’ in-house with no programming—or programmers!—required. This does away with the traditional system of using external consultants to come in and redesign your application software every time you modify your processes. With WorkfloPlus you can modify any process in minutes at no extra cost and have a new workflow fixing operational issues immediately.

KDA: Your solution is deployable across desktop, mobile and wearable technology, is it unique in that? Why is that important going forward?

Keith Shipton: Because enterprise wearable technology is still a relatively new market place, most software companies, including the largest, haven’t invested in that space yet, so their solutions don’t reach that far.

Intoware have been involved from our inception in wearable or ‘hands-free’ computing technologies involving voice activation and head-tracking functionality, so everything we do has a no-compromise mobile centric approach meaning that we harness the full power of smart devices rather than build diluted or scaled down versions of desktop applications.

Compatibility with wearable technology is extremely important for the shipping sector because whether it is today or in 3 years time, wearable technology will become widely adopted for any task that requires hands-free operation and communication or remote expert support, such as complex mechanical failures or any mission critical or hazardous job where audio visual expertise can be delivered right to the front line where and when it is needed.

Because wearable computers need to link to desktop computers and servers or other handheld mobile devices, it makes perfect sense to find a solution that is compatible across all platforms now when implementing ‘handheld’ mobile solutions rather than go through the upheaval of replacing suppliers later when adopting ‘hands-free’ wearable tech.




KDA: Connectivity has been acting as a brake on a lot of technology deployment onboard vessels. To what extent does your solution rely on enterprise‐grade connectivity? Or doesn’t it?

Keith Shipton: WorkfloPlus works offline or online so it overcomes the connectivity issue. Although most of our clients prefer our cloud service, we offer hub-and-spoke server deployment too which works well for shipping vessels.

Basically there would be a central server at HQ with local servers on each ship. Workflows could be created locally or at HQ and all data could be sent between servers in packages when satellite connections are achieved. Users would complete their workflow on their device and then upload or download their data to the ship’s server by Wifi.

KDA: Platforms and APIs are the future and we’re seeing more solutions and technologies which aren’t domain‐specific to maritime but have clear maritime applications coming through. To what extent are companies like yours in a position to outflank the market incumbents?

Keith Shipton: Our solutions have open API’s allowing any other software company to integrate with us or develop solutions that are compatible. The problem with most sector or problem specific software applications is that they take months to be created and deployed and they soon become obsolete unless they are continually upgraded to track the sector’s needs and nuances.

The beauty of our solution is that the customer creates the workflows and is therefore always in control and able to modify processes internally at will, ensuring they remain agile, timely and relevant. We can train any operator to be creating their first workflow within 30 minutes – it is that simple and intuitive. Our drag-and-drop editor checks the workflows for end-to-end functionality before deploying, ensuring there are no mistakes or frustrated users.

Because WorkfloPlus is such a flexible toolkit it not only becomes fully domain-specific to the maritime sector, but it can be made customer specific, and department specific, and even team specific so that it becomes an intrinsic part of the way individual businesses, divisions and teams choose to work. We don’t know of any sector focussed solution that can achieve the same degree of localised optimisation.

KDA: I’m really interested in the wearables element of what you’re doing and how it could relate to shipping. There are plenty of discussions in the industry about autonomy and the dangers of automation—whether humans or machines are a better bet. My argument is that we should actually understand and quantify the contribution that crew make on board, then we can make informed decisions about where to automate and where not to, in order to avoid unintended consequences.

Do you think potentially a solution like yours might be a starting point to try and do that ‐ capturing Big Data about what each crewmember does via wearables, which can then be crunched alongside all the other technical and performance data ‐ maybe even health tracking data too? The result being a clear picture of how the ship is operating holistically?

Keith Shipton: Wearable technology in shipping can have many important applications. For example, it is highly likely that there will be occasions when the expertise required to fix a problem isn’t on board at the time.

Wearable technology allows both the operative on board and the expert at HQ to be seeing and discussing the problem and the solution together in real-time, saving hours of delays in repairs and even preventing unscheduled detours and all the associated costs.

But your point about human / machine interaction, manual versus automation and data collection are all equally valid. Wearable technology will become the ultimate in Human Machine Interfaces (HMI’s) that I mentioned earlier.

Machines will do most industrial jobs better, faster and more consistently than humans – but people are still more intelligent and make better balanced decisions so human intervention to ensure positive outcomes will be important in Industry 4.0 IIoT production and MRO environments for the foreseeable future.


Images courtesy © Getty Images

This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Futurenautics.


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