Big Data: Automation At Sea

Big Data: Automation At Sea

As fascinating as we find big data’s potential as a management tool, the sources of big data also need to be considered. Anywhere an electronic signal or impulse is recorded, there is a potential data point. In isolation, these data points can be used to increase process efficiency. Collectively, they are making cultural and societal changes, increasing efficiency but eliminating jobs.

Anyone who has watched Discovery Channel knows that an aircraft carrier is an incredibly complex device. My service in the Navy was on a ship much simpler in scope than a nuclear powered carrier, but in my time aboard I was able to see the collection, as well as the transformations made by big data.

“Beans, Bullets, and Bulk Fuel”

My ship was a Fast Combat Support Ship, basically the fuel and grocery delivery system for the fleet, and I worked in the engineering department. The only hulls in the fleet larger than ours were the carriers, although we did our job with one fifteenth of the crew.

With their nuclear power plant, the carrier can stay at sea indefinitely. However, her aircraft needs fuel, parts and ammunition, and her crew needs food. The fleet supporting the carriers’ mission needs these same things, and it was our job to deliver them.

The Watch-Stander’s Lot

As part of the engineering crew, my job was to assist in monitoring and maintaining the ship’s machinery, both for propulsion and auxiliary functions. Most of the equipment, ranging from the gas turbine main propulsion engines and huge diesel generators, to boilers and water distillation plants, refrigeration equipment, and air compressors to fuel and oil pumps, had to be kept in operation 24 hours a day while the ship was underway. The only way to keep all the equipment pieces running at peak efficiency is to constantly monitor their performance so that potential faults can be repaired before there is a catastrophic failure.

Monitoring meant that every hour of every day, someone like me had to go around and read every gauge on every piece of machinery, and record the readings on a log sheet. Some pieces of gear had only a pressure and a temperature gauge, others had as many as fifty different gauges and parameters that needed to be recorded every hour.

Automation Comes to Sea

Near the end of my tour on the ship, the Navy began installing sensors in the place of most of the gauges on the machinery. The readings that would take a team of watch-standers most of an hour to complete before they had to be taken again are now constantly recorded electronically, more completely and accurately than live sailors could keep them, not to mention the reams of paperwork eliminated.

While I was aboard, the ship had a hardworking crew of around 380 sailors and officers. Today the same ship spends even more of her time at sea with a crew of 176 civilian mariners. Automation and the use of what is essentially big data analysis are the factors that keep her at sea, performing her mission.

The sailors whose jobs were eliminated by automation were all reassigned to other vital tasks, but how many jobs in industry have been eliminated by automation, and more importantly, what has happened to the middle-class wage earners who held the jobs?

By Peter Knight

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