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Future-proofing the fleet

Fri 17 Mar 2017 by Paul Fanning

Future-proofing the fleet
Containerisation will allow huge changes to take place in port

A new container ship design intended to enable shipowners to adapt to future circumstances has been unveiled by Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce has unveiled a new modular concept in ship design to provide smart future shipping.

Speaking at the company’s London, UK offices, Oskar Levander, vice president for concepts and innovation, showed its concept design for a future-proof container-carrying ship featuring modular components that can be swapped out or renewed to adapt to changing requirements.

Called Electric Blue, the proposed vessel is based on a 1,000 teu feeder vessel and represents Rolls-Royce’s response to the challenges of low charter rates, changing environmental regulations, fuel diversity and emerging technologies.

This is achieved by offering a flexible design based on the concept of ‘everything in a container,’ whereby alternative gensets, batteries, accommodation areas, fuel tanks and so on are containerised and can simply be swapped out as required.

The ship also has wider dimensions than current container ships, with a slightly arched hull design and a deeper, sharper bow design to minimise the effects of wave slamming when out at sea. Dual propellers have been specified for ballast and also propeller redundancy. They have been set as low as possible to ensure they always remain below the waterline.

An additional advantage of the wide steel hull is that there is no need for water ballast on board to stabilise the ship, and therefore no need for ballast water management. Mr Levander said: “This way, we avoid having to invest millions in a ballast water treatment system.”

Because so much on the vessel is based around containers, it becomes a relatively simple task to use a crane to replace or upgrade various elements depending on market conditions, the voyage, and so on.

“By using the ‘everything in a container’ concept, the vessel can be tailored for specific routes and local emissions regulations, as well as adapting to various political and economic situations,” said Mr Levander. “Meanwhile, through the use of standard interfaces, we can minimise the number of systems that are needed. There would be no fixed engines, no fixed fuel tanks, no ballast water system, no water production and no sewage treatment plant.”

In fact, even the control bridge is housed in a container. While this would obviously not be compatible with current regulations on design, it is intended in part to ensure that the vessel is ready should fully unmanned container ships ever come into service. Should that be the case, the owner would be able to remove the bridge entirely from the ship and relocate it on shore to control the vessel remotely from dry land. For now, however, the bridge is on board the ship, housed below the containers at the rear of the ship rather than above, thus freeing valuable space for additional cargo payload – although, as Mr Levander made clear, this aspect would require approval from regulators before it could be built. 

Overall, Rolls-Royce estimates that Electric Blue has the potential to save €2.5 million compared to an equivalently capable newbuild, in terms of capital expenditure. However, this saving would be offset to some extent by the increased operating costs incurred in swapping out individual pieces of equipment. Mr Levander said: “Yes, there will be additional opex costs related to these things. There is an impact, yes. However, cost plans will be based on individual charters and the ability to adapt will bring its own cost benefits. Equally, if you are operating a fleet, it may be the case that you have kit that you can chop and change between vessels, thus minimising any such costs.”

Another effect of such a design, of course, would be to increase the lifespan of a modular vessel to its hull life, since any equipment could easily be replaced or upgraded.

The modularity of this design is part of a wider picture, as far as Rolls-Royce is concerned. It feels that the various pressures on shipping mean that the decision to invest in vessels for the long term is more risky and uncertain than ever before. Its response has been to offer a design with low building costs, low maintenance and new adaptive possibilities.

“The compliance options, fuel diversity, fuel price uncertainty, low freight rates and possible future environmental regulations mean that, in terms of investment, the picture has never been more complicated,” said Mr Levander. “To some extent, any decision about equipment is going to be a gamble because you simply cannot know what may be forthcoming over the lifetime of the vessel. This is why a flexible solution that allows shipowners to chop and change according to circumstances makes so much sense.”

Rolls-Royce believes the new conditions, and the responses to them, will see a variety of seismic changes to the market. The idea of low-cost smart shipping, it believes, will see new players emerging who will want flexible, adaptable and remote-ready vessels such as Electric Blue, in order to exploit the market.

Mr Levander used the phrase ‘Uber of the seas’ to describe the possible future of the market, in which global retailers may seek to control their own means of distribution by chartering or even owning vessels. This would make access to a low-cost, high-capability vessel such as this one invaluable.

Inspiration has in part come from Rolls-Royce’s experiences in the aviation sector, where low-cost airlines have transformed the market by focusing on standardised fleets and high asset utilisation. This, it believes, may also be the future for the shipping industry.

Mr Levander said: “I think the standardisation of vessels is something that will become a shipping trend. All ships today are effectively prototypes, but it makes much more sense going forward that they should become standardised, modular designs able to adapt to a variety of needs.”

The design of Electric Blue can be scaled down or up and Rolls-Royce is already