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Koichi Tsuji
By
April 30, 2019

Disrupting the Maritime Industry with Apps

The maritime transport industry is lagging far behind in terms of technological innovation. 

So, I decided to do something about it.

Two years ago, I launched a company called Vendola Solutions. Vendola is an independent IT consulting firm that helps ship owners, operators, charters, and brokers streamline technical and operational processes.

AppSheet Customer

Early on, I saw that my clients needed help modernizing their management strategies through digitalization—the process of using technology to solve common challenges that have been around forever.

Disruption seems to be everywhere we look. But it turns out that most companies in the shipping industry today are still using paper-based management systems, and inefficient software solutions to run their day-to-day operations.

This is partially due to the fact that ships tend to have limited IT resources. Ships primarily rely on satellite communications systems to transmit data to onshore personnel. Quite a few technologies are involved in this process, and they are not tightly integrated.

While there are many off the shelf software solutions that can streamline commercial and technical operations, the truth is that none of the leading programs are very customizable, or capable of driving actual cost and time savings or safety improvements.

Take my word for it: These companies could greatly benefit from custom apps.

AppSheet Partner App-Best Bad Practice - Horizontal-CompressedAn app created by Tsuji.

Challenge: Creating custom apps

Procuring a custom app in the shipping industry is both time-consuming and expensive.

Companies typically have to consult with third-party app developers, requiring a huge amount of investment. The whole process takes months to years for an app to be created.

This is very frustrating for ship owners—most of whom are aware of the need for technological change but are often forced to use the same inefficient management processes they’ve been relying on for decades.

I saw this as a big opportunity.

I knew that if I could figure out a way to bring apps to market in a way that was less resource-intensive, I could solve a major problem for the industry.

There was just one challenge: I had never developed an app from scratch on my own.

Apart from having a working knowledge of languages like JavaScript and Python, I didn’t even really know how to code. My experience lies in technical and operational management and in processes like inspections, crew coordination, inventory, and logistics—not in software development.

Solution: AppSheet

At first, I decided to form my own technology team to develop custom apps for my clients.

This approach didn’t help much.

First of all, outsourcing app development was very expensive. I wasn’t actually reducing the cost of app development this way—I was just absorbing it directly.

It was also very frustrating working with third-party app developers, as it required constant communication and collaboration for even the most basic processes. This resulted in countless corrections and do-overs.

I had been hearing a lot about the benefits of no-code app development. Seeking a better way forward, I googled “no-code app.” I ended up testing a couple of leading solutions like PowerApps, Appily, and OutSystems but wasn’t very impressed with what I found.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered AppSheet—and that’s when things took off.

AppSheet was far more sophisticated and easier to control than any of the other platforms I tried.

With AppSheet, you can build an app for almost any process with a little bit of practice. Without coding experience, I’ve built several apps that are changing the way the maritime industry operates.

Example app: MOLSHIP

Right now, one of the most exciting projects I am working on is a management app for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), an international shipping provider based in Japan and one of the largest companies in the global maritime industry.

We are working for their affiliated company, MOL Shipmanagement Co., Ltd (MOLSHIP), which is responsible for the technical management of their own fleet.

MOL owns a fleet of ships, which they mostly manage themselves. There are a few internal affiliated companies and departments who are responsible for the technical management of each vessel. They organize the crew, and conduct physical inspections etc. 

Superintendent of the vessel routinely visit each vessel and compile reports to ensure safety, efficiency, and regulatory compliance. Inspection is a rigorous process that involves taking many pictures and interviewing crew members.

An inspection may take a full day to complete for just one ship—and that’s before counting any paperwork that needs to be completed, tracked, and managed. 

I single-handedly created an inspection app to digitalize the entire inspection workflow. 

The first project was successfully completed last year. The app was delivered to around 30 end users, who use it every day. Their feedback is continuously reviewed and used to improve the app. 

AppSheet3

There are two different apps, both of which can be accessed from an app launcher: A “viewer” app, which allows managers to read all inspection reports and assign tasks, and an “editor” app for reporters to use when conducting site inspections.

Here is what the workflow looks like across different teams when using these apps:

  1. Pre-inspection meeting report: First, one or more inspectors will have a discussion with management about the purpose of an upcoming ship audit. The team will use the “editor” app to determine the core areas of focus. Individual tasks can be assigned and given an “open” or “closed” status.
  2. Inspection report: Next, management will send a team of inspectors out to a ship. While they are on site, the inspectors will be able to use the “editor” app to view their pre-inspection meeting report, as see any open tasks that need to be completed. From there, inspectors can write the inspection report, and update the status of each task.
  3. Ongoing feedback: It’s important for managers to provide feedback throughout an inspection. I set it up so that managers can easily add comments to an inspection report, and assign a thumbs up or thumbs down to individual practices using the “viewer” app. A single email is then automatically sent to a report conductor, who can see all responses in a single view.

AppSheet Partner App-Details

An app created by Tsuji.

Advanced features

With AppSheet, your apps can be as simple or complex as you need them to be.

Just by researching AppSheet’s YouTube channel and developer community, I have been able to implement some advanced functions that others may find useful.

Some of these include:

  • Filtered view: By using filters, a user can only see his or her own report. Each report is organized by vessel name and by status—published or working. If you click on a row, the user will be taken to the report detail view, where he or she can view an improvement list, un-publish a report or go to another app.
  • Dependent dropdown: I made it easy to see which personnel correspond with each vessel, using AppSheet’s “dependent dropdown” feature. When selecting a vessel, personnel fields can be pre-filled with corresponding technicians and engineers.
  • References: In several places, I have created “references”—or connections—between various tables in the app. I use this to pull data from different tables when it’s needed.
  • Actions: Actions, usually shown as buttons on a view, allow you to modify data, navigate inside and outside of an app. I wanted to make it easy for users to delete reports, so I put a “delete” button at the top of the app. However, I was aware that users may accidentally hit the button. So, I added a “lock/unlock” column to hide or show the “delete” button.

Appsheet’s support desk is also quite helpful and capable of addressing efficiently any issue that we have. They are quick to respond, and always willing is The response is rapid, and they are always willing to work with us until the problem is completed.

Results

While the MOLSHIP project is still being tested, it’s clear that this app is going to have a big impact on the company’s overall operations.

Some of the benefits for MOLSHIP include:

  • Time savings: This app shaves several hours off of each inspection. It’s easier for inspectors to compile information as they move through a ship, as they don’t have to carry around paper sheets which can get lost or damaged. My app also eliminates the need to file and manage paper after an inspection.
  • Enhanced communication: Each report also has an embedded distribution list. After a report is published, all parties can be notified using an SQL trigger, which I built into the app. Users can then see a list of reports that they have to read right in their app viewer. Admins will also be able to see who has read a report, and what reports have or have not been read.
  • Clean data: One of the biggest problems that shipping companies face when manually entering data into spreadsheets is not “clean” data. This occurs when spreadsheet columns have extra symbols beyond numbers. By using an app, MOLSHIP is guaranteed clean and actionable data.

I also use BI tools such as Tableau in conjunction with AppSheet, for enhanced data visualization. Reports are now clean, accurate, and easy to read.

Originally, my data was hosted in Google Sheets. However, I am dealing with a large amount of data (22 tables). I migrated all of the data to SQL Server, as Google Sheets has a limit of 5 million cells.

For me, personally, this is just one example of the success that I have had working with AppSheet.

It’s gotten to the point where I can step in, create a sample app, and show it to customers in no time at all.

My clients are always amazed when I do this and want to know how I am able to create such robust apps in just a matter of days when it takes them months.

Such is the power of no-code app development

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