Automation retrofits for vessel modernization


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By Hans Høglund, VP Retrofit

One route owners can take when it comes to exploring strategies for vessel optimisation and performance management comes with effective on-board automation. We will explore how by making these decisions, financial burdens for maintenance and reliability can be mitigated and fuel-saving strategies can be put in place.

The financial burden of outdated automation

One of the most cost-effective ways of doing this right now is the refit of old, obsolete automation systems on board, which can often bring with it the same benefits of a newbuild in terms of modern and optimised day-to-day operations.

For many vessels within today’s fleets, there is often a great need for automation renewal, but simply never time to do it. Also, as automation systems represent the “central nervous system” of a vessel, shipowners are reluctant to ‘mess with’ these operation-critical systems. While automation systems may appear to be functional on the surface, underneath, they can be out-of-date, clunky and unreliable. They can also be a significant financial drain. There are shipowners today who are prepared to pay 10% of the cost towards a new automation system just to maintain the old system they have on board – a cost which will eventually add up to outweigh the cost of a replacement.

Another issue is that the dry-dock periods are kept to an absolute minimum, and often there is not enough time to do a major job like an automation retrofit.

At Høglund, we see a trend now where the suppliers of the existing systems found onboard typically offer owners a ‘partial’ upgrade, where they often start with an upgrade of the “top-system” operator-stations and user interfaces, and then at next yard-stay they continue with major hardware components such as computer processing units and input/output cabinets. With this approach, ultimately, owners will face a significant financial burden and may be sleepwalking into a situation where they are effectively paying twice for automation refits as they are locked into contracts with their supplier, often without upgrade options. For owners looking to avoid this ‘double payment’ scenario, they can opt for a new complete integrated automation system installed at 60-80% of the cost of a partial upgrade that is being offered by many hardware suppliers.

One factor that can help owners with the decision around automation system retrofits is the need to comply with the EU MRV environmental emission regulation 2015/757. With automation retrofits, owners are ticking two boxes by complying with regulations and optimising their onboard technology.

When owners and operators are analysing the budgets for vessel renovation, a significant amount of focus is placed on the return on investment of every aspect of the project. Investing in automation systems is an area that offers considerable future payoff for relatively low costs if you plan effectively and use the opportunities wisely.

Automation, big data and improved vessel reliability

Effective automation system integration allows vessel owners to manage operating expenditures with improved fuel efficiency and maintenance costs. All systems found onboard modern vessels need to communicate, to utilize the capacity in all rotating machines onboard and keep running-hours to a minimum. The integrated Power Management System (PMS) plays an important role in controlling all heavy consumers onboard. Hooked up to bridge and propulsion system, the PMS can plan and utilize the engine capacity, ensuring power delivery as optimized.

A common scenario encountered by owners and operators is periodic system faults. These faults often appear at random intervals and can cause a significant amount of disruption, especially if it is a critical system. To fix the fault quickly, owners face a significant financial cost to deploy service technicians. Often, the lack of data from the system logs on the fault means that the underlying cause of the fault is not found. This is usually as a result of antiquated paper print outs being unavailable, poor data storage capacity and random uncontrolled deletions and overall system inefficiency. Upgrading automation systems can allow owners to take advantage of seamless and reliable data storage and access to gain a valuable insight into how their systems are working and understanding why things go wrong.

With the automation systems owners can tap into the significant data banks generated from a vessel’s day-to-day operations. Through this data, owners can develop a picture of a vessel’s efficiency through a Ship Performance Monitor (SPM) and make further optimisation decisions more reliably. This data is crucial for forensic analysis following incidents. With the proper tools, analysis of incidents can be done by the crew onboard, shore-based technical crew or by the system manufacturer, (through the onboard internet connection). Instead of an outdated, paper-based system, owners will instead have a system that tells them what caused the failure. By having the SPM system along with the ‘off the shelf’ automation hardware, with a five-year warranty, then the need for calling out technicians can be eliminated. Again, this presents a significant cost saving to owners.

Simplifying onboard automation with integration

Old cruise and passenger ships were often designed with systems from different makers. We have often found yards who have tended to work with their preferred hardware suppliers, who haven’t paid as much attention to automation or integration. This often means the finished vessel has a myriad of disjointed, dislocated systems. This could result in an electronic control room having 10-20 different monitors and stand-alone systems such as the PMS, tank-sounding, bilge, HVAC, refrigeration compressor control, engine safety and valve control. To maintain all this and keep spares is a significant challenge. In addition to this, there are dozens of stand-alone Programmable Logic Computers (PLC)-units hidden onboard, all from different makers, with their own backup software, engineering software and tool-cables, with engineering software running on obsolete versions of windows – some as old as Windows 95!

Failure of any of these small units can cause major problems for the operation of the ship, and as discussed earlier, the costs surrounding day-to-day maintenance and repair can spiral and present a major financial headache for owners.

A way to combine and simplify the complex automation hardware and software is to bring it all together into an overarching Integrated Automation System (IAS). With an overarching IAS, the numerous automated systems found on board are consolidated. Consequently, the day-to-day management of these systems and hardware can be operated with a greater degree of control and simplicity by the crew.

Many ship-owners have seen this and used the IAS refit as a golden opportunity to get rid of all these systems and units. One by one these units have been removed and integrated into the new IAS. Furthermore, this new simplicity means owners need only to contend with the need for fewer spare parts, only one service engineer available 24/7 through a remote connection.

An energy management strategy for vessels – cooling units case study

Alongside giving owners greater peace of mind with vessel reliability, data asset management and futureproofing, IAS also allow the owners to manage their vessel’s energy consumption. One system that can provide this is the onboard cooling and refrigeration system.

Most of the ships built in the previous century were designed with a few large chiller units. Daily, these units often run on low loads with relatively high spare capacity, which is a waste of money. Today there are several ways to improve the efficiency and utilize the chillers in a much better way, which are closely linked to the efficiency of automation systems.

The “Alaska Cooler” is often seen on board ships operating in colder climates, sailing on top of a huge reservoir of refrigerated water. By installing additional heat-exchanger units to cool down the “cold-water string”, the need to run chiller units is reduced, and for some periods eliminated. During the periods where the seawater is not cold enough, a chiller unit is used to bring the temperature down. The system must be able to automatically close off the cooler when entering areas with warmer water. This can be enhanced by replacing one large heat exchanger unit with smaller ones to give smaller adjustments to the cooling, presenting a big energy saving in running these units.

As well as ‘fine-tuning’ of heat exchange units, automation in these systems can also present savings when they are used to support start-up procedures such as flushing and lubrication. Normally, an engineer will keep many units running 24/7 – a big energy drain on the vessel – to simplify day-to-day start-up. However, temperature conditions (e.g. weather) change throughout the day, and the load requirements will also change. So, there is a major energy-saving potential if automation systems such as electric lubrication pumps can start and stop the when external temperatures and that of the cold change. This one example of effective onboard automation that can come from a retrofit has the potential to save owners hundreds of tons of fuel per year.

Integrated automation – a fuel-saving opportunity

Although bunker prices have taken a dramatic downturn in recent months, with fuel making up between 30-40% of operating expenditure, minimising excess burn is crucial. With a modern IAS, it is possible to significantly reduce excess fuel consumption, giving owners another opportunity to manage expenditure when bunker prices return to pre-COVID costs.

Propulsion is the number one power consumer onboard, and therefore also the priority area for OPEX saving potential. However, to achieve savings here, the crew operating the ship must have a proper visualisation of fuel use. AnIAS retrofit can help achieve this.

An example of the IAS and fuel-saving correlation comes with a flow meter installation that can present a bridge officer with a reliable consumption figure that can be compared against previous voyages. We have witnessed some ferries generate up to 20% in fuel savings, just through proper consumption data visualisation from flow meters.

Another example of data visualisation generating fuel savings is through a torque and thrust sensor within a propeller shaft. With this, operators to have an accurate measure and display of the level of cavitation going on. By allowing the crew to see this, they will have a reliable insight into the real-time efficiency of their propeller and make immediate adjustments to reduce excess fuel burn.

The insights gained from the big data generated from the IAS can also give way to fuel savings.. An example is being able to spot deviations. Owners will be able to see where fuel consumption is deviating from what they expect, especially on voyages they may have done hundreds of times e.g. ferries. Deviations can occur through other factors other than the hardware on board, such as with weather or delayed and disrupted operations (often as a result of passengers or cargo). However, if deviations are occurring without any obvious reason, then the crew and operator must know, and this is where information access and display that comes with a modern IAS is vital.

Modernising vessels through an IAS retrofit can bring several operational and financial benefits to a ship and owner. As fleets are looking to maintain operational expenditure, procurement decisions should be focusing on what an IAS retrofit can do for them, there are options with great potential out there. Evaluate all your options, and build a future strategy before you make your decisions.