At up to 80 metres tall and 400 metres long, a cargo ship is a majestic piece of engineering, designed to circumnavigate the globe in a swift, multi-week voyage; and for a shelf-life of 25-30 years.
Its 1000 plus litre engine propels it through open-face ocean at speeds of up to 24 knots, floating gross tonnage in excess of 600,000. For larger, turbocharged vessels, peak power capabilities are now around the – staggering – 80-megawatt mark.
But at its end point – a port – it’s suddenly not quite the engineering masterpiece it would have us believe.
“Much like an aeroplane, a cargo vessel is awkward and clumsy at navigating in port,” said marine expert, Julian Oggel of Novatug BV ahead of the IHMA Congress next year.
“Engineered for vast open water and high, uninterrupted speeds, visiting a port with a cargo ship is a balancing act of two paradoxical actions: steering and stopping.
“Neither possible when performed concurrently, yet both completely necessary to bring the vessel safely to its final berth.”
The result of seeking this elusive equilibrium of hydro-dynamic forces is a loss in both safety and efficiency, often a substantial one, says Julian.
“To afford the ship time to stop, the momentum needs to be taken out, and ships are thus often slowed down significantly prior to their arrival – particularly in an overcrowded or undersized port, where it’s more challenging to perform the manoeuvre.
“Total up this lost time and fuel consumption – and increased cost per voyage – across your entire fleet, annually, and you’re looking at a hefty sum of overheads. Or, if you’re a harbour master, a large dent in potential profits, with fewer ships coming in and out of your port.
“What we need is a way to allow ships to maintain speed for longer and still be able to stop them on time. This is where the efficiency gains lie.”
Over the years, as ships are growing in size (as per the new generation of large container vessels) – and port space is concurrently shrinking – this mooring efficiency problem is increasing. And, at an exponential rate.
“Unfortunately, to complicate matters, it’s not a linear problem. Put simply, it takes four times as much resistance to stop a ship that’s twice the size of another,” said Julian.
“In other words, it’s getting far more difficult than we could have fathomed to moor cargo ships in a safe and timely fashion.”
The cost of this efficiency problem is felt economy wide, with marine industries accounting for 4.8% of Australia’s gross domestic product.
Unsurprising, therefore, that port upgrades are on the lips of most political leaders; some of whom have pledged multi-million-dollar sums to expand existing sites, adding to the nation’s, already very large, infrastructure shopping list.
But what if there was an easier, cheaper and faster way to create more space and optimise the supply chain, rather than dredging new canals, locks and harbours; building new bridges, buildings and connecting roads?
Fighting the tide
Enter Novatug BV, the Netherlands-based engineering firm whose mantra, “put thrust into nature” is not something to be sneered at.
The firm has engineered a revolutionary tug technology – ingrained with cutting edge AI capabilities – which it describes as “an expensive tug, but a very cheap port infrastructure upgrade.”
Why? Because, the efficiency gains it creates through honing the port call turnaround process is equivalent to that of a multi-million-dollar port upgrade, claims Julian, who heads up the firm’s Netherlands operation.
“In our current situation you can do one of two things: either make the infrastructure bigger; or you can say ‘let’s increase the control of those ships in that same environment, so that they need less room’. That’s what we did with this design and tool,” he said.
His claims are bold, but mechanically – and logistically – justified.
The tug allows controllers to influence the behaviour of a ship whilst it is moving, rather than sitting still.
“It pulls, not only with its engine, but with the resistance of its own hull,” said Julian.
“A very large ship moving through the water contains a lot of energy. We harvest that energy and use it to create resistance and deliver the steering or braking as required.
“Energy which is part of the problem forms the solution,” he explained.
“Normally a tug would capsize in this situation, but with our technology, that won’t happen. If you let it trail sideways relative to the tow line, it simply creates a lot of drag whilst remaining totally stable.
“In doing this, it helps get ships in and out of ports more quickly as well as keeping them under tighter control – both to the effect of creating more port space within the existing infrastructure.”
It’s sort of the same engineering logic that has been applied to airports. Rather than expanding infrastructure to accommodate more passengers, they’ve sped up and channelled passport processing times with the use of machines. Increasing the sum of their parts, rather than their actual part size.
“We envision the same future for marine freight,” said Julian.
“Historically, designers have always focused on the traditional problem of creating more physical space, when the real focus should be on port call optimisation by smarter operational tools.”
Yes, it’s a tug, but not just a tug…
Julian is, quite rightly, quick to defend comments that the technology is “just a tug”.
“Yes, it’s a tug and can do everything a normal tug can do. But if you use it for just that, it’s a missed opportunity,” he said.
“The technology yields most of its value when enhancing ports. It gives harbour masters the opportunity to accommodate larger vessels – and more of them – without investing in new fixed infrastructure.”
It’s not just efficiency or financial gains that are to be celebrated from the technology, either.
The tool has been hailed as a “game changer” by environmentalists in the Netherlands, given its ability to improve fuel economy per transit, on a mass scale.
“We are hoping the Australian marine freight industry will embrace our technology,” said Julian.
“It’s now up to us to convince harbour masters and marine operators that we can indeed help them save significant sums, improve their transit times and cost per voyage, at the same time helping the environment.
“We are at a transformational time, globally, where the need to transport large volumes of freight quickly and with minimal harm to the environment is a challenge we are all grappling with. Our planet and our balance sheets depend on it.”
Julian Oggel is the managing director of Novatug BV, a sponsor of the 2020 International Harbour Masters Association (IHMA) Congress.
He is to present at the IHMA biennial Congress, to be held in Hobart on 23-26 March 2020, sharing the stage with representatives from the IMO, AMSA, IALA and Harbour Masters & Port Operations Managers from around the globe.
Amy Sarcevic is an editor and freelance writer.