ABS: The Future of Class


By Tony Munoz 02-28-2016 06:32:56

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2015 edition.)

For more than 150 years ABS’s leadership in scientific analysis, technology and human behavior has been at the forefront of safeguarding life at sea and protecting the marine environment. Building on its core values – safety, teamwork, innovation, integrity, quality, reliability and a focus on people – the organization has been nothing less than revolutionary in its impact.

In 1862 a group of underwriters founded the American Shipmasters’ Association in New York City. Membership cost $700, and each member agreed to accept any deficiency in operating expenses in proportion to their premiums. The association included shipbuilders, shipmasters, marine insurance carriers, and companies and individuals involved in maritime commerce.  

In the beginning the group’s mission was to collect and share maritime data, establish standards of competency for ship’s officers, promote the security of life and property on the high seas and ensure an accurate classification of merchant vessels. It was a time where the great sailing ships of the world were constructed of oak and steel and built in places like Aberdeen, Liverpool, Dumbarton and New York.

The association established guidelines for surveying, rating and registering vessels and published the information in the Record of American and Foreign Shipping, which was first issued in 1867. Today it is called the ABS Record and still reports essential information on each ship and offshore installation classed by ABS. In 1877 the group published “Rules for the Surveying and Classing of Iron Vessels” to supplement its 1870 “Rules for the Surveying and Classing of Wooden Vessels.” In 1890 it published “Rules for Building and Classing Steel Vessels,” which is still updated and published annually. In 1898 the group was renamed the American Bureau of Shipping, or simply ABS.

By the early 1900s ABS faced a very difficult decision when London-based Lloyd’s Register of Shipping proposed a merger of the two organizations. But Lloyd’s insisted that, as part of any merger, all designs developed by American naval architects be sent to London for approval. ABS balked at the prospect of foreign oversight, passed on the deal and decided to remain an independent U.S.-based class society.

Its patience was rewarded when the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 required that all federally funded U.S. ships be classed by ABS. Business boomed, and ABS eventually became the second largest classification society in the world. World War II brought with it a massive increase in the number of U.S.-flagged ships, all of them ABS-classed. During this period there were 18 shipyards with 200 slipways, and they built more than 2,000 Liberty ships and T1 tankers.

At the end of the war the government sold hundreds of these ABS-classed ships, which had become surplus to the nation’s requirements. Many of them were sold to European allies, particularly Greek shipowners. For any vessel sold with a U.S. government mortgage, the ship had to maintain its ABS class. This led to international expansion and the opening of new ABS offices in Western Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. It also allowed ABS to class international flags, a huge boon to business.

The 1960s saw the advent of nuclear-powered ships, and ABS expanded its rules with the “ABS Guide for the Classification of Nuclear Ships.” An ABS executive chaired the Atomic Energy Panel, which was convened by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and helped draft a pioneering report on the design and safety of nuclear reactors on board ships. ABS also began working with Chevron and the University of Arizona on computerized technologies for measuring the strength criteria for a new class of 200,000-dwt oil tankers.

The computerization of data and vessel engineering during the 1970s and subsequent decades made ABS a leader in the analysis of ship and component designs, including such critical issues as longitudinal strength, vessel stability, vibration, cargo gear, sea loads and ship motion. This led to the development of industry-leading products such as SafeHull and ABS SafeShip, a lifecycle fleet information management system introduced in 2000. Since then, computerization has allowed ABS to manage complex calculations for research and development and to create a data bank that contains the structural and survey information for each vessel in the ABS Record.

Technology – the Driving Force

Today the company is a leader in technological innovation, focused on groundbreaking research in areas ranging from harsh environmental conditions to alternative fuels. As the industry emerges from a prolonged downturn, ABS is overseeing more than 150 maritime and offshore technology projects that will help identify, test and bring to reality innovative concepts that impact safety, asset operations and environmental responsibility. These include the next generation of maritime technologies like ice-phobic coatings and tools to enhance cyber security and systems integrity.

In the growing area of alternative fuels, ABS’s newly published “LNG Bunkering Technical and Operational Advisory” is the industry’s most extensive overview of potential solutions and current practices from the perspectives of an LNG fuel provider and a gas-fueled vessel operator. ABS’s Global Gas Solutions team has classed the world’s first LNG-fueled containership, North America’s first LNG barge, the world’s first very large ethane carrier, the world’s first compressed natural gas carrier, and the first dual-fueled offshore supply vessel built in North America. It is also leading the way in efforts to promote the use of LNG as a marine fuel.

Further bolstering its research efforts, ABS has joined forces with world-renowned universities for game-changing innovation and partnered with shipyards, operators, drilling contractors and engineering companies in a joint industry project to develop new offshore design standards. During a recent University Partnership Symposium, academic leaders from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California – Berkeley and others discussed developments in ABS’s Class of the Future, including sensors and autonomous inspection, materials innovation and nanotechnology, and the application of analytical tools like computational fluid dynamics.

The goal is to bridge the gap between research and application and to partner with academia and industry in developing sustainable industry solutions that foster new ways of thinking and working.

As a technology-driven organization, ABS relies heavily on the core engineering and scientific skills of its people and the wealth of experience they bring to problem-solving situations. New graduates are recruited and provided with a structured rotation through different departments within the company to expose them to the varied roles that are critical to a high-performance organization. Training and development seminars are ongoing, and the ABS Academy – with learning centers in Houston, Athens, Busan, Singapore and Shanghai – provides world-class instruction through more than 300 courses taught by subject-matter experts.

It’s a key differentiator. “By investing in people,” says Chairman, President & CEO Chris Wiernicki, “ABS is investing in the future. Our vision is to build on our strengths through investment in people, technology and tools to ensure that we have the proper resources and competencies in place to retain our competitive edge and move toward defining and providing the next generation of class services.”


All of which leads to the concept of FutureClass™, ABS’s term for the future state of marine classification. At its heart is Big Data, the element that will tie together future regulations with technological advances. The goal is to redefine class without redefining the safety mission that is at its core.

“Big Data helps ensure the right information is provided to the right people at the right time to make more informed, data-driven decisions,” says Wiernicki. “It is the harnessing of information through intelligent systems-monitoring to foster improved decision-making and enhanced performance.” So, for example, Big Data will redefine the importance of physical inspections. It will not replace the surveyor, but it will provide surveyors with data to conduct more complete, more timely, more efficient, more condition-based and less intrusive surveys with greater emphasis on real-time performance and less emphasis on calendar-based survey schedules.

But there is a danger. Big Data can be hacked. Systems can be compromised. The bigger the reliance on data, the greater the danger becomes. And so ABS is at the forefront of cybersecurity efforts to protect the integrity of data and access to the systems that control it. Called CyberSafety, the program is based on consistent verification and validation of systems and subsystems, periodic cybersecurity risk assessments, and a consistent approach to capturing lessons learned.

Another key component of ABS’s FutureClass™ is the concept of “human factors engineering,” or HFE. Since studies have shown that the human element is crucial to effective safety standards and practices, HFE focuses on eliminating the opportunity for human error. “We recognized the importance of HFE years ago,” states Wiernicki, “and today we have multiple HFE initiatives under way.”

One of those initiatives is focused on the ergonomic design of marine engineering spaces, a study led by ABS’s Safety & Human Factors Group. Another is the Mariner Personal Safety Project, conducted in conjunction with Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas and the company’s global maritime industry partners. ABS approached companies to request “close call” and injury data to create a dynamic database that could be used to identify trends, possible causes and potential lessons learned. About 100,000 injury and close-call records have been collected so far, and the data is sanitized to protect the anonymity of participating companies.

“It’s time to change HFE in shipping,” Wiernicki asserts. “Integrating HFE design practices and principles that reflect human capabilities and limitations can result in assets that are more cost-effective, safer and easier to operate and maintain.”

The Spirit of ABS

Tying all these activities together is something Wiernicki calls “the Spirit of ABS.” It’s made up of the seven core values that guide the organization and make it what it is – Safety, People, Integrity, Reliability, Quality, Innovation and Teamwork. “The Spirit of ABS is really the DNA of our organization,” says Wiernicki. “It’s what defines and differentiates us. It’s what keeps us focused and aligned.”

It’s clearly working. The ups and downs of market cycles over more than 150 years of doing business are temporary, but ABS’s vision and values are permanent. “Many things are changing around us and very quickly – technology and markets, specifically,” Wiernicki states, “and ABS is changing just as dynamically. We’re continuing our evolution and shaping the future.” – MarEx

Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.