Just 3 years ago if you talked about a “cloud” solution in any shipbuilding environment you would simply get a “Not possible in Shipbuilding” response. However, in today’s modern shipbuilding organizations which are navigating the new potential of mature technology as well as redefining their businesses, the “cloud” often comes up in discussions. Even though most of our industry is not ready to adopt a cloud solution I find it at least positive that more shipbuilders are looking at the possibility of the cloud. There are many benefits that the cloud has but what is not usually discussed are the challenges we face with any cloud solution, even ignoring ITAR and other government regulations. You need to keep those challenges in mind before moving forward. After doing this analysis, you will probably find that you cannot immediately do everything in the cloud but leveraging at least some cloud solutions can add significant value to your business.
Benefits of the Cloud
Using cloud software from an enterprise perspective has several benefits that will help shipbuilding businesses improve what they are doing today. It will also allow them to prepare or leverage new improved workflows for today’s environment.
The top 3 ways leveraging the cloud can benefit our industry are:
Allows us to Focus on the Business of Shipbuilding.
Technology is part of every business and in some respect every company today is a technology company. However, the ideal state for every shipbuilder is to focus on shipbuilding and have the technology we use be the same as using electricity, water and even the internet.
With a cloud solution, many things are simplified such as software management which includes eliminating the installation of software, upgrading software, purchasing/maintaining/updating hardware, and creating a backup strategy, etc.
Almost all cloud solutions support a REST API, which can be thought of as a modern and simple, yet powerful way to connect (integrate) with other solutions in your environment. Also, cloud solutions are inherently more granular and focused on a key functionality than many legacy solutions which tend to be more bloated with unused features.
Adapt to Changes in our Environment
Any solution we incorporate in our organization today will need to at least leverage other “new” technology solutions. With a cloud solution we can leverage many different type of devices such as mobile phones to notify people of a critical event immediately, allow quick approvals or even allow us to provide a digital shop floor.
Cloud solutions can scale to unimaginable size as well as support the trend of an increased distributed (remote location) environment where the team, either internal or external (sub-contractors), are spread across the globe.
One benefit which is often overlooked is that a cloud solution can protect your Intellectual Property (IP). Yes, I said protect your IP. The reason is that cloud solutions gives you more control over who has access to data and what they can do; you have the ability to let the user interact with data but not “download” it. An example would be that they can view a 3D model of your ship in a browser, but they are never able to download the file to “distribute” it to anyone. Once their access is removed they will never be able to see that data again.
Cost / Investment
The majority of cloud solutions usually have an annual cost structure rather than a perpetual license (you own the software). This annual cost is lower than the outright purchase of the software which is a benefit because it allows the initial investment for a solution to be more cost effective. Also, depending on the cloud solution, you will be able to change the number of licensees you need annually which allows for a more dynamic and potentially better result for your business. For example, if you have little to no work, you pay zero. If you have a lot of work, you pay for what you need. This flexibility is not all good though, which is why I talk about it in the challenges section below.
Challenges of Cloud
There is no doubt that there are benefits in using cloud solutions; however, as mentioned above, it is not without some new challenges.
Even though I believe the cloud has a place in our industry, I do disagree with the generalized message we hear from software vendors and even analysts that we need to move our entire business to the cloud or we will be left behind.
There have been several reports created that do mention that cloud adoption has been slower than previously predicted by some. This does not surprise me as businesses need to consider the benefits with the new risks or new challenges. This is why businesses are slower to adopt cloud. You can look up some research done by Business Advantage and CIMData if you are curious.
There are many new challenges, but I will list the top 3:
Most of the initial discussion of cloud solutions was around security or really the sense of security. This does not seem to be as big of an issue these days because it is now accepted that most cloud solutions are much more secure than any on-premise solution; almost all security breaches require an internal human which can be reduced by going to the cloud.
Instead, trust of these cloud solution providers is now one of the main concerns. To do business with them, you are trusting that they will continue to provide great security measures, they will exist in the future, they will stay true to the promised SLAs, they will not change their product cost and ensure that with the continuous updates of new features they will not break or discontinue a feature that your organization depends on. I know SSI is running into some challenges with SharePoint online where features we depend on are being deprecated (no longer supported and may be removed in the future). We are also running into modifications in key features that completely change how we would have implemented our product (SSI Nexus).
Shipbuilding Data Size and Complexity
Shipbuilding is one of the most complex manufacturing industries and the amount of data we generate and consume dwarf other manufacturing industries. This is not just specific to the CAD data but also to all the non-CAD data.
The amount of data we daily interact with does reduce the benefit we will achieve with some cloud solutions. Yes, in theory a cloud solution should scale infinitely and in theory support all the data. However,, the cloud application needs to be designed and develop to handle these use cases but many times they are not. I have seen cloud solutions struggle to handle 20% of the data from a 60m ship. This is also exasperated with the requirement of a good internet connection that is required to be fast and reliable. Even though in some parts of the world this is not an issue, there is a high trend for shipbuilders to have a distributed team where some of the people are located in areas with inadequate internet connections. This will be overcome eventually but is still a current challenge we face.
In shipbuilding there are many applications that need to be integrated to have a seamless flow of information and actions. With clouds solution, the integration can sometimes be challenging. This is a surprise to many as most cloud solutions provide a modern REST API which again in theory should allow integrations to be easy. They do in a certain sense; however, the software vendor needs to expose the appropriate REST API for your need. If there is something missing, then there is simply nothing you can do but wait until the vendor provides you the appropriate API call. This goes back to the trust factor where you trust the vendor will fulfill your request ASAP.
Control of Data
The control of data is both a benefit and challenge. There are benefits that allow you to in some sense provide more granular access to users (internal and external) as well as by the nature of the cloud solution have virtually unlimited tacking capabilities; however, getting all your data out of the system in the case you want/need to change providers can be a major challenge.
This is where you hear the term locked-in. In essence, once you pick a software vendor you have entered into a lifelong relationship which cannot easily be broken. There are some vendors creating mechanisms for you to get to your data; however, since most do not think it is in their best interest, it is not a priority for them to support.
Moving Forward: Do not Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water
As with every decision we make there are advantages and disadvantages. Using a cloud solution is no different. Much of our business will not be in the cloud in the near future. We are not ready for it and there is no way you can successfully run your entire shipbuilding business in the cloud.
However, this does not mean that there is no place for a cloud solution today in our industry. On the contrary. There are several challenges that we all have today and there are various cloud solutions which can be used. In fact, there are many shipbuilders that are using a cloud solution for part of their business today. I am surprised how many shipbuilders are using cloud solutions for different parts of their business that would be classified as part of their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). It would be hard for me to provide an exact % but I am certain it is above 50% in shipbuilding.
From an engineering and planning perspective, even though we will not be using the cloud to do our heavy CAD work, there are some natural benefits of the cloud that can significantly improve communication. An example is design / production / client reviews. This is where we can share the latest version of the model with rich data to any stakeholder we grant access to. This will allow remote team members and even clients to view the latest model on any device
Here are some examples of this strategy I blogged about 4 years ago:
Example of communicating changes for a Design Review:
There are several other solutions which I would encourage you to investigate.
There is a big trend in attempting to move every company in every industry to the cloud. As with any new technology paradigm there are pros and cons. I do believe the cloud is where the world and our industry (eventually) is moving towards but I do not see any real signs that our industry should move their entire business to the cloud in the short term.
However, there are some strong benefits with low risk/investment that cloud solutions today can provide that make sense for many shipbuilders to consider and adopt. This will allow us to also gradually adopt the portions of the cloud in our business where we can gain a competitive edge. This can be as basic and simple as only doing design reviews.
It should be noted that there are many shipbuilders who already have some portions of their business in the cloud. So, do not rule out the cloud in your company and there is a high probability some part of your business is using the cloud.
The key takeaway is a cloud solution may not be viable for some parts of your business; however, it can be viable and beneficial for other parts of your business today. Do not rule out the cloud.