Chris Wiernicki: Chairman, President & CEO, American Bureau of Shipping


By Tony Munoz 02-28-2016 06:31:15

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

Explain for our readers what a class society – and specifically ABS – does.

A classification society is a non-governmental organization that does two enormously important things:

  • First, it establishes and maintains technical standards for the construction and maintenance of vessels and offshore structures, and
  • Second, it validates that construction is in accordance with these standards and carries out periodic surveys to confirm ongoing compliance.

We have a role in design review and surveys during construction, but we also award Approval in Principle (AIP) for new technologies, which is one way ABS works with industry to move innovative ideas from concept to reality. But regardless of the particular role we fill as a classification society, the most important thing we deliver is knowledge, and that is something we contribute through our biggest asset – our people.

Is ABS the only U.S.-based classification society? How many are there in the world?

ABS is the only U.S.-based classification society. Globally, there are about 50 organizations that include “classification” in their list of activities, but a much smaller number actually meets the criteria of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) as true classification societies. ABS is the only IACS member based in the U.S. 

What is its legal structure?

ABS is a not-for-profit corporation that has more than 1,000 members from around the world who are leaders of industry, government and academia. ABS also has more than 30 committees that engage members to help align its activities with industry needs. ABS Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of ABS that provides technical services to support safe, reliable and high-performance asset operation.  

How many employees and offices are there?

Today, about 7,000 team members make up ABS and ABS Group in more than 200 offices in 70 countries around the world. Our teams are headquartered in Houston, but our technology centers in China, Korea, Canada, Singapore and Brazil position ABS as one of the largest global technology-focused organizations.

You are a strong believer in the importance of “Big Data” and its transformative effect on the maritime industry and the business of class. Tell us about that.

Big Data is what ties together regulations of the future, technological advancement, and what I call “Class of the Future.” The future of class and the next generation of maritime regulations are going to be driven by data to a degree that has never been seen before. Real-time data has clear value, but gathering more data brings security risks, the need for verification and validation of systems and subsystems, periodic cybersecurity risk assessments, and a consistent approach to capturing lessons learned. And it goes beyond cybersecurity. ABS has defined it as CyberSafety.

Okay, what is CyberSafety?

CyberSafety is about cyber-enabled physical systems, data and security. Cyber security is a critical component of CyberSafety in helping our members manage technical risk. As technology becomes more complex, vessel safety will depend as much on software integrity as on hull and machinery integrity. So we are developing guidelines for generating, transmitting, storing and using data – emphasizing security and integrity – and we are working toward requirements for data quality and data governance as well as system architecture and design best practices. It’s an enormous and growing challenge.

You are also a big believer in what you call “Human Factors Engineering” or HFE. What is that all about?

Human factors engineering improves safety by highlighting how people respond to their work environment. HFE brings together very different disciplines like cognitive psychology, biomechanics and industrial engineering design and optimizes complex and tightly coupled systems for a safer workplace.

ABS’s research facilities are world-renowned. Tell us about them and your partnerships with various universities around the world.

Our Houston office is a hub for our global innovation centers around the world. We keep technology and leadership moving 24 hours a day and keep it close to our clients. Our projects range from noise and vibration analysis work in Singapore to technology development for LNG cargo-containment systems using long-range laser imaging in Korea. We are developing a physical ice management tool in Canada. In China, we are researching ways to predict and control ship underwater radiation noise. In Brazil, our team is developing Guidance Notes on composite repairs of steel structures on production units.

In addition to our own research, ABS partners with prestigious academic institutions, funds scholarship programs, endows chairs, and contributes to academic infrastructure. The university research we fund will lead to disruptive technology that will impact the role of classification. At a recent event we hosted in Houston, we spotlighted several universities in the U.S. where ABS is funding research. A few examples include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a probabilistic decomposition-synthesis method is being developed for efficiently quantifying extremes for structural systems, a project at Michigan State University for autonomous underwater exterior hull inspection, and research at UC Berkeley that examines computational methods for advanced manufacturing.

What is the ABS Academy?

Investing in our employees through training and development is a strategic priority, and ABS Academy is our world-class learning organization for employees and clients. We have dedicated learning centers around the world – Singapore, Shanghai, Athens, Busan and Houston – that offer specialized training courses led by experts who have theoretical knowledge and practical understanding. ABS Academy delivers more than 300 programs each year ranging from a review of regulatory issues to emerging industry topics, such as LNG-fueled vessels and FPSO class requirements.

You mentioned the term “Class of the Future” earlier. What does that mean?

ABS’s FutureClassTM is our name for the visionary future state of maritime classification, and it’s based on our view of current market needs and future capabilities. Class is continuously evolving as needs and capabilities change, so we will lead the definition of class of the future. Class is evolving to become more condition-based, continuous-based and risk-based. ABS’s FutureClassTM will stabilize the three legs of the safety stool – hull, mechanical and cyber safety – and it will evolve to serve a changing industry and regulatory environment.

We noticed that the company’s Mission Statement makes no specific mention of the maritime business and instead focuses on serving “the public interest as well as the needs of our members and clients by promoting the security of life and property and preserving the natural environment.” Is the omission of maritime deliberate?

ABS is unconditionally committed to its mission. Historically that focused on the maritime industry. However, our focus has extended over time to address the needs of the offshore sector, the government sector and the needs of our members in the context of our mission, which addresses the protection of life and property and, inherently, the natural marine environment.

Tell our readers about your own career and how you became involved with ABS.

The mission drew me to ABS. Many companies have a mission statement, but here our mission guides what we do and how we live every day. My first experience with ABS was in 1983 – 10 years before I would ultimately join the company. I was working at the David Taylor Naval Research Center when I was awarded both the ABS-funded U.S. Ship Structure Committee’s Graduate Scholarship and a scholarship from the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. I had obtained a B.S. in civil engineering from Vanderbilt University and an M.S. in Structural Engineering from George Washington University. I was aware of ABS – its mission and its global footprint in the marine industry – and the ABS scholarship made it possible for me to complete a second master’s degree at MIT, where I studied ocean engineering.

I became President and CEO of Designers and Planners, Inc., one of the U.S.’s leading naval architecture firms, and I joined ABS in 1993 to lead its Engineering team for the Americas Division. Later, I served as President of ABS Group, then Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for ABS, then President and COO of ABS Europe, and then President and COO of ABS globally. I think the fact that a former CTO can become the CEO shows how strongly technology drives this organization and is a part of our DNA. That type of transition happens in very few organizations.

This past July you were elected Chairman of the International Association of Classification Societies. What do you see as the major issues facing the business of class at this time and how do you plan to address them?

Our IACS strategic plan addresses current and future needs of the shipping industry, focusing on three key areas: Structural, machinery and cyber system integrity. A key initiative is advancing the creation of a cyber-system safety framework that addresses control systems, software quality assurance, data integrity and cyber security. Individual class societies already are working on this issue, and IACS formed the Cyber Systems Expert Group this year. IACS will draw on best practices from other industries to develop unified requirements for the design, manufacture, installation, testing and commissioning of cyber safety systems.

You clearly have a lot on your plate. What do you do to unwind?

I am an avid history buff and love reading about World War II. My father was in the Polish Resistance as a young man and spent several years in concentration camps during the war. He wrote a book about his experience that made an enormous impression on me. I’m a product of that legacy, and I’m compiling information myself in hope of one day writing a book as the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. I’m also a big sports fan and enjoy walking. I log miles on my fitness tracker while listening to music like the Doobie Brothers, Tommy James & the Shondells and Frankie Valli. I don’t let a lot of grass grow under my feet. – MarEx

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