Ship Chandler – Farewell, My Lovely*
Supply of parts and maintenance for autonomous shipping will be a thorny problem for some time. Historically, when vessels were more generically cargo transporters, a single supplier, a ship’s chandler, would have all the pieces needed to get the vessel operational and seaworthy again.
With increasing automation and specialisation, no single supplier can possibly offer spares and replacements for the differing items of machinery and deck jewellery needed. For the foreseeable future, OEMs, online catalogues and licensed sub-contractors will be the main source of spares and maintenance. This article addresses how suppliers could position themselves in the future maritime ecosystem.
*Obscure Reference – Farewell My Lovely is a 1940 detective noir novel by Raymond Chandler
As discussed in our previous article “Does AI Dream of Electric Ships?”, maintenance and repair comes in many flavours (Breakdown, Periodic/Preventative, Risk-based, Condition-based and Prescriptive). None of these are truly suitable for autonomous operations. All depend on an engineering crew who can deal with both the routine procedures and non-routine problems.
When an autonomous vessel is only in port for 36 hours, how do repair and maintenance crews deal with issues flagged up during the voyage? Many commentators suggest that monitoring of system parameters, fault diagnosis, prognosis performed by AI, and continuous failure mode analysis will be the answer to reliability-centred issues. But it still leaves the core problems of who undertakes the work and when this activity occurs? While some suggest this problem is 15–30 years away, Valour Consultancy expects this to be upon us in a much shorter timeframe.
Insurance and Integrity and Redundancy
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Classification Societies are feeling their way towards standards and specifications that will cover Autonomous Vessels (AV). Valour expects that they will gradually converge on something similar to the standards required of modern deep-water dynamically-positioned vessels, in that there will need to be a marked degree of redundancy and separation for all equipment. Given that many operators and owners are contemplating integrating their AVs with similarly automated port facilities, it makes sense for the many services associated with loading and offloading to be shifted to the port. This would only leave propulsion, navigation and cargo monitoring on board.
In all likelihood, the default drive-train will be electric for enhanced controllability and to prevent common-mode failures (when one component or system failure disables the vessel). This implies a minimum of two engine rooms with separate fuel supplies and separate control systems divided by fire-proof walls so that a fire or failure in one does not affect the vessel’s capabilities. There will be a lot of problems regarding propulsion efficiency for naval architects to address. This, however, makes maintenance slightly simpler.
A vessel with autonomous loading and unloading will only be docked for a very short period. This leaves little time for teams to complete any necessary work, so the whole philosophy for maintenance and repair needs to be modified.
One way to do this is to adopt modular maintenance whereby nothing is repaired or maintained on board. For example, if a compressor or oil pump needs to be repaired or adjusted, it is simply replaced wholesale by a unit that has been repaired and recommissioned in the suppliers’ workshops. All necessary works are completed on shore and the (relatively) simple task for port crews is unit replacement bringing to mind the Danish toy building block approach.
The challenge for shipping fleet owners, builders and maritime equipment suppliers (chandlers) is to make this as easy as possible. The painful part of this equation is the increase in stock value retained in onshore warehouses. The capital investment will be considerable until sufficient numbers of such vessels are plying the oceans.
The integration of logistic chains and suppliers might be a significant consequence of autonomy.
If people adhere to the view that western economies are still in the throes of a merger/integration phase, it is interesting to note that most mergers tend to occur in times of low or falling energy prices. For those suppliers wishing to make their company fit to feed the upcoming autonomous revolution, internal restructuring to meet modular maintenance demands would seem sensible.
Of course, ship builders would also be interested in this market. Stena Bulk have presented an interesting concept, InfinityMAX, wherein a vessel is not built as an integrated whole but as a series or train of modules. They can be slotted together to transport any combination of cargoes, with the navigation and propulsion module being entirely separate. Such a vessel having navigation and propulsion modules both fore and aft would seem to fit the bill for both redundancy and separation. The potentials for this approach are significant and will be addressed in a separate article.
As the AV revolution hits the maritime supply chain, manufacturers and service contractors will have to integrate and re-organise in ways that they would not have contemplated before. To match the efficiency of an autonomous fleet, the workforce must become more skilled in less traditional methods of operation. Hopefully, they can achieve this while maintaining the traditional skills needed for the huge fleets of non-autonomous vessels that will remain on the oceans for many decades yet.