Giving proper consideration to automation at the design stage can boost efficiency and avoid awkward questions further down the line, the CEO of Høglund Marine Automation tells The Naval Architect
With imperatives such as the 2020 global sulphur cap, it’s more a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ LNG establishes itself, and a new generation of LNG carriers is emerging to meet the growing demand for bunkering services. Typically, these vessels have complex requirements, in particular the use of boil-off gas to burn in their engines via a fuel gas control system. Similarly, some LNG bunkering barges must also extract vapour from receiving ships to use as fuel. To achieve this requires additional interfaces between the gas plant and the rest of the vessel and the integrated harmonisation of multiple on-board systems to ensure optimal performance.
One company that has sought to position itself at the forefront of this growth sector is Høglund Marine Automation. Founded in the early 90s, the Norwegian company develops and delivers both standardised and bespoke hardware and software solutions and LNG carriers have become a particular specialism, with its integrated automation systems (IAS) currently incorporated onto 16 LNG carriers (around 12% of the global fleet). In April this year, it was announced that it would be providing the IAS for Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement’s (BSM) forthcoming 7,500m³ LNG bunkering vessel, to be built at Hyundai Mipo Dockyard in South Korea. In addition, Høglund Marine Automation will supply the vessel’s power management system, power failure control, playback with fast data capture, redundant controller and remote service and support.
Using the plans for the BSM vessel as an example, Børge Nogva, Høglund’s CEO, explains: “What we do is make a centralised automation system which can contain a number of subsystems, and this is what’s known as an IAS. The system allows the operator to sit and see everything that’s happening, including fire detection systems, gas detection systems, tank levels, dual-fuel generators, steering gears — all the various systems onboard usually have some link to the automation system. If they’re not working, or overheating, then an alarm signal comes back.”
The challenge for Nogva and Høglund is that automation is often treated as an afterthought by ship designers, owners and shipyards. He says: “We of course think automation is very exciting and that owners and designers should discuss in much more detail how the automation system should work when they start a new project. But instead they come to us halfway into the project — or even when it’s finalised — and ask whether they can have certain capabilities. You could, if you had thought about it and discussed it earlier. Now it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to do it!”
The consequence is operator stations lacking the functionality desired by the owners, or a convoluted set-up whereby anything up to six different suppliers may have separate screens. “One is controlling all the valves, one is controlling all the pumps, one is controlling the cargo system, one is the fire detection system, etc. So we are trying to get to the owners and designers early so that they give proper consideration to what should be integrated and what should be left as a standalone system.”
Determining precisely what should be included and where responsibility should lie is becoming increasingly challenging, with control of modern vessels often being handled by multiple stakeholders. In the case of the BSM project, the cargo handling system is being developed by Babcock International in Edinburgh, incorporating Babcock’s zero-emission FGSV0 system. “Of course Babcock wants to control what goes in and out of these tanks, to monitor temperatures and pressure levels with its own interface. So you include Modbus serial communication which means we can get information from the tank system and send it to Babcock.
“But they are the ones controlling the valves and pumps. So if a valve were to develop a problem — for example, if it has stopped for some reason so that an alarm goes off — they could send that alarm to us, but somebody still has to press the button to stop the alarm. But who should do this, the automation guys or the cargo guys? There’s an ambiguity in who should do what but somebody has to be responsible for acknowledging the alarm and acting on it. You can’t have ambiguity because this is gas and it could blow up.”
Persuading shipowners and designers to take automation more seriously can lead to systems that are both cheaper and more functional, according to Nogva. With remote monitoring from shoreside Høglund’s technicians are able to conduct servicing — for example with the calibration of a newly-mounted heat sensor — instead of having the vessel’s onboard crew frustrated in their attempts to align multiple systems. “The funny thing is many owners believe that this situation is not possible to fix because they are used to automation systems not working very well, if at all. Every owner we meet nowadays is very engaged with the question of lifetime costs so it is important to increase their awareness that automation can matter and deliver a more efficient ship.”
Because automation is a concern many owners would sooner dispense with, larger companies, such as Rolls-Royce and Wärtsilä, often include these interfaces as part of a larger equipment package. Nogva, who spent 14 years with Rolls-Royce, believes many come to regret their decision, but that a single service contract is often deemed preferable to splitting among multiple suppliers.
Moreover, shipowners may not have sufficiently qualified technical staff or partners with whom to consult on such matters. “In general the designers don’t know anything about automation, or even electronics in many cases. So our work is to explain to them they shouldn’t accept systems from these big suppliers so easily. We give them a list of questions they should be asking and suddenly the glorious Powerpoint presentation [by the supplier] is broken up into numerous challenging matters which the owner needs to understand before saying ‘yes’.”
Nogva has plenty to say about how designers could be better educated on matters of automation. “If you look at the ship design specifications, if it is based on SFI Grouping, then you find automation covered under Chapter 7.9.2 and alarm systems. When we read it it’s like reading the Bible upside down. Why would they say a ship needs a ‘modern, computerised alarm system’? It’s like saying a ship needs an engine so it can turn around, it’s on that level.”
He adds that even good designers will often copy the alarm system text from elsewhere for the specification, even if it’s not strictly applicable to that design. A better practice, Nogva believes, would be to include it within the general chapter outlining the vessel’s intended purpose and the standards it needs to be built to. This could set down what subsystems (e.g. power management, gas detection shutdown, cargo control) should be encompassed by the particular IAS and which ones excluded. But he is sympathetic to the demands and expectations on designers: “They are more concerned with things such as speed, power and hull structure which they need to understand 100%, or the vessel is a failure. If they fail on automation it’s not a disaster.”
It’s more about raising awareness, particularly when shipowners confront the designers and yards with awkward questions about the choice of an inadequate system because they were assured the extra cost wasn’t worthwhile. “They have an operational profile of the vessel they want to achieve. The vessel is supposed to operate in a certain environment and if we are told what that is, we can create, for instance, a power management system that makes it more efficient.”
“Then later on when the owner gets the ship and it has to comply with the EU and IMO rules on reporting — and has included that simple extra functionality — it avoids a situation where the crew has to make notes on yellow post-its saying how far the ship has travelled and estimated emissions. The system can do all this automatically, extract the data and send it to the owner via email. Imagine how much time and money that simple extra functionality could save.