Digitization, Autonomous Vessels and Next Generation Fuels By Mike Guggenheimer

May 3, 2017

Takeaways from EMEC Amsterdam

I just returned from the European Marine Engineering Conference in Amsterdam and I’m excited to have seen RSC Bio Solutions recognized again for its innovation in the shipping industry. We were a finalist for the Environmental Performance Award, which is particularly gratifying given the award’s close tie to our mission to create solutions that address environmental risk, regulatory change and maintenance challenges without sacrificing performance. In general, the way they positioned this award linked closely to some of the themes and insights I gathered from peers and presenters at the event.

The two most pressing issues facing the industry are the ballast water regulations and tightening sulphur emissions requirements. A sister conference dealt with the ballast water regulations, so that left the impending 2020 0.5% sulphur cap as a key topic. While some Emission Control Areas (ECA’s) already cap sulphur emissions at 0.1%, it is a small percentage of the operating environment and a reduction to 0.5% from the current 3.5% cap would be dramatic. Owners, operators, and charterers are faced with some tough decisions they must make now, even though they don’t have clarity on the operating costs of the options.  The ways to address this range from using expensive low sulphur fuel, adding a scrubber system, to a number of alternative fuel systems such as LNG, electric, biofuel, etc.  It is exciting to see the innovation and that the industry is addressing a real environmental problem – and at the same time, there are technical changes that will have profound implications on operating costs, port infrastructure and vessel design.

I participated in a panel of biolubricant peers.  The three highlights from this panel discussion and series of presentations were:

  • Today’s top-tier biolubes are extremely durable and high-performing.  The industry still has lingering concerns about these products based on early experiences, but many of the current biolubricants not only meet the expected performance levels, they can offer performance advantages in some applications.
  • The adoption of biolubes is increasing.  Not only is the overall regulatory environment changing, but, increasingly, stakeholders in the industry recognize the need for solutions that offer protection for the environment.  We are seeing shipping companies and their customers with important brand names look for environmental stewardship.  We are seeing scorecards like the Clean Shipping Index being used to create incentives for lower port fees and fairway dues, especially in certain regions like the Baltics.  And, like the sulphur cap discussion, operations want solutions that are future ready, create more flexibility and require minimal changes in other systems.  For example, a lubricant that doesn’t demulsify or attacks natural rubber could require a seal change and an expense filtering system to remove water.  That brings opportunity for RSC Bio Solutions, as our technology does not require these kinds of expensive changes.
  • Lead leaching – sometimes seen in conjunction with biolubes – is coming from inferior lead paints, not an inferior lubricant.  Vickers presented compelling research demonstrating that there is an industry-wide issue.  This underscores some on the unwarranted and legacy fears about new technology – they wrongly assume when something unusual happens, it is a negative result of the new technology.  The solvency—or cleaning power—of some biolubes is generally a good thing and in this case the use of inferior and lead-based paints in an issue to be address.  This discussion also highlights that when switching to advanced technology (whether that be a biolube, LNG fuel, or a new data management system) it is important to have a partner who is a technical expert and can troubleshoot through technical concerns.

Overall, I observed an industry that is trying to prepare itself for the future.  The industry is slowly emerging from a very challenging economic environment and many marine companies are still struggling.  But, at the same time, the leaders are investing in technology to make their companies smarter, more efficient and more resilient.  It isn’t just about being ready for the future regulatory environment, but exploring technology to make their businesses more financially sustainable.  The leaders are looking at digitization, autonomous vessels, next generation fuels and dramatic changes in vessel design.  It is an exciting time to be in the industry, but with huge changes happening there will clearly be winners and losers.  I believe the winners will be the companies that are thinking long term, anticipating trends, and making investments in technology that minimize downside risk and favor flexibility and compatibility with a wider range of systems.  I am equally excited to see RSC Bio Solutions play a role in creating solutions to these challenges.

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