Comment: Is 2024 the year digital comes of age for naval?

From the command-and-control applications to the cybersecurity needed for critical systems, digital engineering is integral to the inter-connected technology behind today’s vessels, says Jonathan Taylor, VP of Marine, Expleo.


Digital engineering continues to explode in growth year-on-year - so it’s no surprise that the naval sector is advancing digital ways of working, to embrace wider technological developments.

Fleets today are highly complex - not only in their build and design - but also their maintenance. From the command-and-control applications to the cybersecurity needed for critical systems, digital engineering is integral to the inter-connected technology behind today’s vessels.

There are a multitude of benefits that come when using digital engineering, and these go beyond the immediate, tangible examples related to platform and system design. If embraced in its entirety, and with enthusiasm, digital engineering can also be a key enabler of effective cost and risk management, and a gateway to innovative, future-proofed technology - as well as bridging the skills gap. In this piece, I’ll explain how.

Where will digital engineering take us?

Throughout 2023 there has been an increasingly distinctive move towards digital engineering across multiple industries, with a specific focus on leveraging technology to help support engineers in their work. This was apparent in our 2023 Business Transformation Index in which digital twin, automation and AI were identified as the top three technologies companies believe they need to adopt to tackle talent shortages.

The report also highlighted that 30 per cent of businesses also planned to focus on digital twins as a key technology to optimise processes, unlock efficiencies and maximise productivity - and a further 48 per cent intend to pursue the technology to address long term challenges.

How the digital twin can help to optimise business performance

As digital engineering takes precedence, particularly in the naval industry, there is likely to be a need for external guidance as businesses embrace this new challenge. This is where they should look to invest in partnerships with vendors and consultants to help maximise the potential of digital engineering.

For example, when thinking about digital twin, we understand that it is a virtual representation of a physical object, connected to sensor data, that is modelled to react and interact in a digital environment in the same way the object would in the real world. However, in naval, digital twin goes beyond this classic application of maintenance to offer ‘value add’ opportunities for design and build in three key ways:

1) De-risking system integration testing

By implementing a robust modelling and simulation technique to represent the behaviour of  complex integrated systems, ship builders can understand system performance and identify integration issues much earlier in the development process. This then can form the foundation for businesses to use digital twin technology.

2) Constantly assess your upgrades

Technology changes constantly. With regular testing, differing demands and ongoing innovation, demand for through life system upgrades will increase. The digital twin is an invaluable tool in assessing technology refresh options and de-risking the integration between new and existing systems.

3) Assess your data in real-time to make decisions

A digital twin can be considered a key enabler for improved availability, with systems usage, data and critical parameters being captured in near-real time. AI is the key technology to enabling real-time decision-making, giving us the ability to handle large volumes of data, helping humans to make effective decisions at pace.

While technology brings optimisation, there will always be a need for highly trained and skilled engineers - and it’s a requirement that continues to grow, with demand far outstripping talent available in the market. This makes attracting, developing and retaining a skilled workforce a constant challenge for many organisations.

When looking into the future, I believe this technology will enable us to work at a greater pace and be agile in our response to changing requirements. Rather than technology taking jobs from engineers, there will be integration and optimisation, with the two working in tandem.

A comprehensive approach is needed when adopting new technologies

There is a whole wealth of information available in the industry when it comes to digital twins. This includes understanding how to use the technology to improve maritime maintenance, to future-proofing vessels and training crews to work with new technology.

In-service maintenance is already pushing engineers to think in new ways to make their designs modular and encourages future-proofing. Using digital twins will allow engineers to model scenarios over time that help to understand maintenance efficiency and make adjustments accordingly.

With increasing digitalisation and interconnectivity come challenges. One of the biggest is around information assurance – the confidentiality, security, integrity and availability of the precious assets of data. The most successful adopters of digital engineers will be the ones that embrace new methodologies and tools to integrate and test cyber and information assurance throughout the development and support lifecycles, for products and complex systems.

People are the heart of the revolution

There’s no doubt that digital technology can revolutionise vessel design by reducing costs and driving innovation, but for me it must sit within a digital strategy that has people at its heart. Only then will it truly come of age.

As business leaders, we need to understand that people are vital to digital transformation and should be considered in tandem with technology when considering future business plans. Equally, as much as we invest in new tech, we must also invest in our teams ensuring their skills and abilities keep pace with the opportunities that digital engineering brings.

Jonathan Taylor, VP of Marine, Expleo