Aart Rupert (Damen): “From selling ships to selling maritime solutions”


Things are going well again for Damen after several difficult years. The order book is well-filled, and the company is continuing its (digital) transformation and coming up with innovations. Chief Digital Officer Aart Rupert has his hands full and was recently nominated for the CIO of the Year Award.

What is currently the most significant task facing your organization?
“There are several. The order intake is higher than ever, and order delivery keeps us operationally busy every day. In addition, we are transitioning from selling ships to selling maritime solutions.”

“Sustainability is an important pillar, where we move from sustainable vessels, such as our award-winning green tugboat, to a fully sustainable organization. From digitalization, we are moving from implementing software to introducing new business models and improving operational performance. These themes keep us busy and have a lot of impact on what I do. But I also drive the changes because digitalization supports them.”

What role do IT, data, and digitization play, and what is your angle on this as a leader?
“That role is huge. A ship is one of the most complex products you can build. A car has 3,000 parts, an Airbus 380 100,000, and a complex research ship as many as 500,000. As a result, you have a complex supply chain and complex engineering; on top of that, it is not a mass product. Therefore, you must set up your processes well with ERP, PLM (product lifecycle management), and a lot around it. We also started Damen Triton, an IoT solution that we use to make our ships connected. An important step in becoming a maritime solution provider.”

“Damen Triton is really about digitalization. Our ships are connected, have more than 15,000 sensors, and generate many GBs of data.”

“My role has changed. Ten years ago, I started as IT director; my job was to consolidate the IT organization, rationalize the infrastructure, implement applications properly, and make choices that led to shared platforms. Then, my role slowly changed to that of CIO, and I started making policy more from a digital vision. A year ago, we changed my position to chief digital officer. We are both in an IT transformation and a business transformation. This involves a lot, such as optimizing our business processes, sustainability, IT on board, and Industry 4.0 for the shipyards. I am also responsible for the program office for our 5-year strategy program.

What are you proud of?
I am proud of many things. But I think a great example is Damen Triton because it is about digitalization. Our ships are connected, have more than 15,000 sensors, and generate many GBs of data. We make apps for customers to see the ship’s performance and emissions. Through Mydamen, we offer digital manuals and replacement parts – that’s also on the digitalization side. We now have more than 800 contracts for connected ships. That’s still going to grow rapidly; we’ve gained a unique position. I am proud that we are creating added value for ships – also for boats that are not Damen’s.”

“With Damen Triton, we are also the first in the world to be certified for secure access to ships via a blockchain so that you can be sure that the person who ‘enters digitally’ is really who he says he is. This requirement is becoming more and more common.”

“I’m also proud of the complete renewal of our application landscape, which we’ve completed in some places and others, we just need to complete. It’s about everything: ERP, CRM, HR, product lifecycle management, the applications where we create and record the configuration of the ship, the design, engineering, manufacturing engineering … all those platforms we are replacing. From many little platforms where each department used its solutions, we are moving to one environment with one data model. Everybody in the business wants this now. Everyone understands the importance of change management. You can see now that there is an unstoppable movement.”

“In addition, of course, we are innovating. In addition to Triton, we are doing things with new technologies to see what they can bring us. For example, can you give a ship a blockchain? So you can see exactly what maintenance has taken place and when? I do take pride in the fact that we are doing that, too.”

What challenges do you still face as a leader, and how will you try to solve them?
“We know very well where we want to end up and what we have now. In the transition, however, you must make some intermediate, sometimes quite complex, steps. For example, a good example from this week is an issue with part numbering. On a construction site, they work with many drawings showing which parts they need from the warehouse. We are now working on an SAP implementation. This created a temporary difference in numbering between the drawings and the parts at the yard. The director in Vietnam says, “They just can’t handle it.” Working with fifty companies worldwide, how do you make sure you don’t start figuring out how to do it all from an ivory tower? You have to pick up input from the shop floor and take it with you. So you have to travel, walk around the worksite. You have to keep an eye on those things.”

“What I also find challenging is the balance between the time you put into the core on the one hand, getting the basics in order, making sure you keep getting better, and coming up with innovations on the other hand. And those innovations start with technology, where you also immediately have to consider the business value. You see nice initiatives emerging in the company, mainly technology-based, and you must pick those with business value immediately. And make sure they are scalable. But equally, you must kill it quickly if it doesn’t deliver value.”

“I feel responsible for digital transformation and for my team, but also for everything to do with digitization that doesn’t happen in my team. Damen Triton is now a separate entity, but I still see it as my responsibility to provide support and collectively determine that we are doing the right things. So there are many things scattered around, but how do you ensure that everyone stays together and has the same vision and goals, contributing to what we all want to achieve, no matter where it sits?”

What is your motto? Do you have any recommendations for your peers?
“If you see a problem, own it. Do something with it until it’s transferred to someone it belongs to. You can’t say something isn’t your problem. And, don’t just point out problems but come up with solutions as well.”

“And don’t be too modest as IT director, CIO, or CDO. You have a leadership role in transformation.”