Preparing for Change, ABS Enhances the Marine Vessels Rules Book

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As maritime faces transcendent changes in regards to decarbonization, digitalization and automation, innovators from inside and outside of the industry will be challenged to deliver new applications and technologies with increased speed and frequency. Sitting at the center of the innovation storm are classification societies, and earlier this year the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) became the first classification society to incorporate goal-based standards throughout major rule sets, enhancing its ability to handle the increasing flow of novel concepts and new technologies. It is a comprehensive approach to support development of the next generation of designs and equipment employing the latest technology. We interviewed Dan Cronin, Vice President, Class Standards & Software, at ABS headquarters in Houston recently for insights on the new rules and what it means for ship owners, ship builders and ship designers.


“By enhancing our rules with risk-based requirements and strengthening our technical content to add functional requirements aligned to prescriptive criteria, ABS enables the safe and rapid adoption of innovation and technology to support our clients’ and the maritime industry’s evolving decarbonization and digital ambitions,” is how Christopher J. Wiernicki, Chairman and CEO of ABS, described the change when it was announced in January 2024.

ABS Marine Vessel Rules now include an extensive set of newly developed functional requirements and a standardized risk-based methodology which provides a path for class approval, a project started in mid-2021.

“We were challenged at the beginning of this project to produce ‘best-in-class’ rules to ensure that ABS was prepared for a decade of change,” said Dan Cronin, Vice President, Class Standards & Software, ABS. “At the beginning of the project, we went out and spoke to about 600 clients from all segments of the industry, including regulators.”

From this global information gathering exercise, feedback was put in three broad categories:

  • Rules needed to be clearer;
  • Navigating rules, accessing information, needed to be easier; and
  • Rules needed to be set up to better enable innovation, to better enable new technologies, novel concepts and alternative arrangements.

“On the clarity piece, we've gone through our entire Marine Vessel Rules, Part two and Part seven, and we've addressed vague wording,” said Cronin. “We had a graphics artist on board to create new figures, and we've added commentary to make [the rules] as clear as possible. On the access piece, we released a Rule Manager 2.0 tool that makes it much easier to search content [ABS rules encompass more than 28,000 pages of content].”


“IMO pioneered a goal-based approach in some of its rule sets, and we've taken their guidance to introduce the same into the marine vessel rules. The goal-based standards are now set up to better enable the evaluation of novel concepts, new technologies.
Dan Cronin, VP Class Standards & Software, ABS
Image courtesy ABS

Rule Manager 2.0 has many innovative features, including:

  • Custom Rule Book utility, which allows a user to enter in six to 10 basic parameters of their vessel, hit a button and produce the ABS rule set that’s applicable. Available with offline access, enabling users to download items in advance of going onto a ship, for example.
  • A hyperlink utility to assist when rules cross reference one another. “We'll have a utility that will launch a new page and bring the reader right to the target location without them losing their place in the current rule setting.”

With clearer rules and an easier way to navigate them, Cronin’s team turned attention to the biggest challenge: ensuring that the rules are fit for purpose to help the industry and its innovators keep pace with fast-moving technical targets that are cornerstone to hitting the industry’s decarbonization targets.

“The third piece was to address innovation, and that's where we've made our most significant change,” said Cronin. “IMO pioneered a goal-based approach in some of its rule sets, and we've taken their guidance to introduce the same into the Marine Vessel Rules. The goal-based standards are now set up to better enable the evaluation of novel concepts and technologies. A lot of times our prescriptive rules are written with a very specific technical solution in mind. But what if somebody has a new idea that doesn't use the technology we're leveraging today? How do we class those? The goal-based standards are a good way to do that.”

“A lot of times when a designer or a shipyard have a new concept and they want class to review, we will be able to do that more easily because we'll have a predefined set of functional requirements that can be used for novel concepts in areas that may not be covered by our current rules,” said Cronin.

For example, “a client may come in and ask us to review a new technology, maybe a new battery type or energy saving devices that may be used in other industries. We don't always have well-developed rules [for the new technology] but now we have a process [to handle the innovations].
“It follows the IMO approach for evaluating alternatives or alternative arrangements,” said Cronin. “A lot of flag administrations have received it quite well, too, because they have the same challenge as us: they're being asked to approve things that don't fit into prescriptive rules.”

In analyzing the rule changes one strong voice offered this assessment when ABS announced the change in January 2024. “The new and improved interface for ABS rules helps simplify and clarify class requirements, preventing any interruptions in the plan review process,” said Seung-Ho Jeon, SVP and CTO, HD Hyundai Heavy Industries. “This risk-based approach allows us to innovate with confidence and incorporate new technology.”

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