Marine Automation: Shipping is missing out on significant savings by overlooking the basics

by Børge Nogva, CEO, Høglund Marine Automation first published in Ship Management International, July 2017 It’s been well-documented that simple solutions are rarely as attractive as expensive, complicated…

by Børge Nogva, CEO, Høglund Marine Automation first published in Ship Management International, July 2017

It’s been well-documented that simple solutions are rarely as attractive as expensive, complicated ones – despite that fact that they are often the most effective. Take, for example, the simple act of making a list. From aircraft to the operating table, list-making can often improve complex processes far better than hi-tech, expensive solutions.

Lists are one of Høglund’s starting points when it comes to tackling challenges involving marine automation – starting with practical, usable solutions when faced with the challenges of seamlessly interfacing, and integrating the electronic systems on board a modern vessel. Making a list of which hardware and software can go together is one such step that can alleviate several headaches when it comes to maintenance of an automation system, trying to track down which hardware and software go together. However, this is frequently left, leaving users stuck when updates and maintenance are needed. This knowledge gap – the idea that automation hardware is being sold without indicating to users what software is inside – is a frequent point of contention for Høglund’s engineers.

This kind of simple, practical fix, is indicative of Høglund’s wider approach towards increasing the reliability and quality of automation systems used in the marine industry. This field is becoming increasingly crucial. On today’s vessels, an increasing number of systems must work together to ensure optimal performance, safety and efficiency; this is achieved through integration and robust interfacing of automation systems. For example, systems that monitor a vessel engine’s temperature, pressure, fuel levels, viscosity and flow control would all be linked by an automation system managing the overarching operation of a vessel’s engine. Other examples of automated processes include propulsion plant operation, auxiliary machinery operation, cargo on-and-off-loading operation, energy efficiency reporting and alarm systems management.

Despite this, marine automation remains poorly understood, and automation standards still lag below those used in the aviation and automotive industries. This means that frequently, systems which are designed to make processes more efficient are being ignored by their users. Systems fail, and instead of being repaired, workarounds are found. At best, this simply results in a lost opportunity to find efficiency savings through optimised automation. At worst, this can result in mission-critical delays, leading to unacceptable lateness.

Why is it that simple fixes, to prevent potentially crucial failures, are going ignored?

Partially, this is an issue of gaps in expertise. While naval architects have a high-level understanding of vessel dynamics and propulsion, electronics is often poorly understood at the design stage, and therefore specifics are rarely outlined in the same detail as capacity or speed. Furthermore, given that the investment in an automation system is miniscule compared to the overall cost of, say, a propulsion system, thought is rarely given to this aspect of the design. Overlooked at the design and build stage, many vessels may find themselves saddled with poorly optimised automation systems that decrease operability and reliability throughout their working lives.

Another problem caused by this is the issue of insufficient redundancy. Many pieces of automation hardware are at the risk of being reset in the event of a power outage – and any fine-tuning that has been done will be lost as the device returns to default settings. To alleviate this, all Høglund hardware uses spare batteries to ensure that this won’t happen. It’s another simple fix – but one that can be missed if automation is overlooked.

 

Design

Høglund approaches automation with this attitude from the ground up – from ensuring batteries are present, to creating complex systems, with over 500km of wiring involved. Dedicated to marine automation, their engineers design their solutions to operate reliably for the long term. Høglund makes it a rule that all their systems are based on hardware that they know will be available in 15 years’ time, allowing users to operate with confidence, knowing that spares and replacements will be available in the future. This contrasts to other approaches, which involve frequent updates to both software and hardware, meaning that, in the event of an upgrade or replacement of one element to the system, an entire system must be overhauled.

Høglund systems are also designed so that they can be upgraded or adjusted remotely. They offer round-the-clock access to engineers who can fix 90% of automation issues without the disruption of needing to come on board the vessel, no matter where in the world it is.

 

Newbuild

 Høglund’s focus on automation is being used to increase reliability of many newbuilds around the world, particularly in new segments where fresh thinking is required to help unique vessels meet fresh challenges.

One such segment is the new LNG bunkering vessel segment. These new vessels, such as Bernhard Schulte’s LNG bunkering vessel, built at Hyundai Mipo Dockyard, place unique requirements on the automation systems. While LNG carriers have been in service for many years, and use boil-off gas to burn in their engines, bunkering barges may also extract vapour from receiving ships to use as fuel. This requires additional interfaces between the gas plant and the rest of the ship, drastically increasing the complexity of the automation.

Of a small number of LNG bunkering vessels that currently exist, Høglund automation solutions are present on three of them, including Shell’s specialised LNG bunkering vessel recently delivered by STX in Korea, and the Seagas, a bunkering vessel owned by AGA and operated by Sirius, that has completed around 1200 bunkering operations successfully.

 

Retrofit

Additionally, at the retrofit stage, Høglund can bring new life to automation systems that have fallen into disuse. One example of this involved two vessels belonging to the ship management company Sirius Shipping. The automation systems on these ten-year old tankers were beginning to cause serious problems in terms of downtime and maintenance, frequently requiring maintenance personnel to come on board to conduct repairs. These vessels had some of the most highly interconnected and integrated automation systems on board.

Changing an entire automation system can be difficult, and very costly, and for this reason most ships retain the same automation throughout their lifetime, even if it is unsatisfactory. However, the need for change was clearly necessary, and Høglund was eager to take on the challenge.

Høglund completed the retrofit, estimated to take two weeks, in eight days, installing systems that reduced downtime, with remote access allowing engineers to help resolve teething issues without travelling to the vessel. The optimisation of the power system contributes to fuel savings, and the reliability of the hardware, based on easily replaceable off-the-shelf components, ensuring that these systems will continue to function throughout the rest of these vessels’ lifespans.

 

Automation Manifesto

 In many ways, automation systems are analogous to nervous systems, transmitting vital information between different parts of a complex whole. As we look towards a future of autonomous vessels, and big data controlling all aspects of operations, it can be easy to overlook the fact that most vessels at sea today are already highly automated. By starting from simple first steps such as lists, Høglund is demonstrating that owners and operators can benefit in the here and now when automation is no longer overlooked – and future-proof their operations at the same time.