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Interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Holger Watter


“Your practical knowledge is the theoretical.” Professor Holger Watter repeats this statement three times during our interview about increasing automation in maritime technology. We are sitting in the university cafeteria in Flensburg, where he has served two years as president. What does digitization contribute? What do trainees and students need to acquire by the end of their apprenticeships if they plan on smooth sailing in a maritime 4.0 world? And why, with as much as we love high-resolution line charts, network systems and tables on large monitors, do we still actually need analog displays?

Professor Watter, will analog displays on ships eventually be consigned to the dust bin, considering the possibilities that modern visualizations currently offer?

Watter: Analog displays still have specific advantages. When I enter a room, I can see at a glance the pointer’s position and whether everything is in order. That is a true ergonomic advantage. Digital data are analyzed more slowly by the brain. Previously, we had sketchbooks and paper diagrams on board, so you could keep an eye on everything. Currently, it is harder to get a complete overview on a PC. Even though analog displays are expensive, their utility justifies the cost.

Isn’t the goal of digitization to make everything more transparent, easier to analyze and more simple overall?

Watter: I don’t think that the work will get simpler, because information overload is often a problem. There is no question that digital systems provide valuable support; however, if an error occurs, the operator has to think things through and solve the problem. Automation can’t replace piston rings or oil filters, and human intervention is necessary during an alarm.

Does this mean that we need a mix of automation, digitization and strong common sense?

Watter: Basically, we must achieve ways to support humans on board ship with modern tools, primarily in the form of logically processed data. However, this begs the question as to which data I collect, how I evaluate it and what data I then send to land. Shipping companies, customers and crews have very different interests. There are companies that consider their ecological balance sheet in their transport routes, and are willing to pay for this information. The shipping companies are currently being prompted to install the necessary systems; however, if there is no commercial pressure on this point, then the shipping companies see no economical benefit. Simply collecting data is not an end in itself.

You used the phrase, ‘‘ecological balance sheet.’’ Is fuel consumption driving digitization?

Watter: If you keep in mind the fact that a modern, large container ship burns the equivalent volume of a single-family house in fuel every day, then yes, the shipping companies are incredibly interested in energy savings. The interest in sailing in a way that reduces emissions also increases when customers ask questions about the ecological balance sheet along their economic and delivery chains, if not sooner. In contrast, the ship’s energy balance remains on the sidelines only if the interest is in moving goods as cheaply as possible from southeast Asia to Europe. That is an unfortunate truth. Automation has a place in making ships more efficient and economical. The added value here lies in the increased transparency of the overall processes and their dependencies.

What do you teach your students who want to work as maritime technicians on ships?

Watter: For our students, who are just starting their careers, the relationships between CO2, nitrogen oxides and sulphur are enormously important. If we accept energy-efficient sailing as part of the key emission figures, then we are talking about consumption. However, this also depends on a number of other factors: load, draft, route, trim, speed.

These can be easily measured.

Watter: Yes, however these are often measurement results that I usually define as “noisy.” This is why the engineers on board must perform their own diagnostics. We must teach our students how to deal with this noisy data. When does it make sense to apply a Gaussian distribution to the data to obtain a logical curve

That sounds like math.

Watter: True. We have introduce our students to mathematics in greater depth. I have to be able to correctly interpret numerical values from a cloud of data – and the best way to do this is to apply statistical probabilities. The problem here is that few have any desire to learn more math. What are standard deviations? What is a normal distribution? These young people have come from three years of on board training to become ship mechanics, and now their professor comes and says, “Your practical knowledge is theoretical”. Previously, they learned how to draw boiler water, which key figures are important for oil checks, and even which way the hammer is swinging. I don’t want to exclude the practical part, as it is important for our theoretical education. However, I have to focus on other points in their secondary education. After all, scientific standards are increasing the demands on my students’ abilities to analyze data. On a ship, they will be paid to think things through. We are lucky in Germany that we mix the practical and theoretical. First, there is the practical education in maritime mechanics, and then a theoretical course of study on top of that. Digitization will provide us with new tools in the future, which will create added value only if the crew also understands how they work. We have to include the crews in all of these technical possibilities. The next generation will – hopefully – show a greater affinity for this.

Holger Watter, thank you for the conversation.