Good ideas will win through — eventually

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 15 January 2020

ShipInsight


It is never easy for anyone with a new idea to make a breakthrough into any market and perhaps for an outsider breaking into the marine equipment market is harder than other industries. That is because although a great deal of then equipment found on ships is also found ashore, the environment on a ship is very different and some unique problems must be overcome.

People who have worked within the industry – especially as seafarers are often behind innovation and ideas either while they are at sea or after coming ashore. It is not impossible for companies or individuals without that unique insight to come up with successful ideas but often they must work harder to make the breakthrough into an market which some consider to be insular and conservative.

Idea

One example of an innovation developed by a former seafarer is the Sludge Buoy system now marketed by SKF. It was invented by Fredrik Pettersson, a Swedish First engineer serving on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ships and patented by him in 2002. The system improves the separation and removal of oil and emulsions in the sludge tank of ships allowing oily water separators to deal with much cleaner waste saving time cleaning blocked separators one of the most despised jobs on board and the reason behind so many so-called magic pipe pollution acts. After patenting his device, Petterson established his own company which was acquired by SKF Turbulo some years later.

Another example is the Finnish cleantech software company Eniram founded in 2005 and since 2016 owned by Wartsila. The company which was one of the first to market trim optimising software came about as a collaboration between ex-masters and engineers and software experts. Trim optimisation software rapidly became a growing market after pioneers such as Eniram opened for business and made owners and operators aware of the benefits of such products and services. The company enjoyed a rapid expansion in the years before its acquisition.

Another company which is now part of the Wartsila Group but which began by developing ground breaking products is Transas. Although not the only organisation to see the potential of displaying navigation charts electronically, Transas took the idea further and was a pioneer in developing the interactive raster chart systems that were to evolve into ECDIS.

At the time of their introduction, none of the examples mentioned were required by regulation which is a main driver for so much of the equipment and services ship operators must invest in. That they were successful in attracting a share of those limited funds is evidence that shipowners are prepared to be pioneers when they can see the benefit of an idea for their business.

ECDIS is of course now mandatory for all vessels above 3,000gt but without the investment put into it by Transas and other pioneers it could just as easily have been a nice to have system for a small number of operators. ECDIS is destined to evolve further as a key part of e-navigation – the full extent of which is yet to be explored.

Sometimes the time lapse between an idea and its acceptance by the shipping industry can be very long indeed. Flettner rotors were first installed on ships in the first quarter of the 20th Century before disappearing. In the last few years, the idea has gathered new traction bringing success for companies such as Norsepower with its 21st Century version of the concept. The driver behind both incarnations of the Flettner rotor has been the desire to reduce fuel use although the first was economic and the latest driven as much by regulation as economics.

Competition to bring new ideas to the attention of shipowners and operators is fierce and success is never guaranteed. Marine equipment exhibitions can help but publicity through press articles and word of mouth is the surest way to reach a wide audience. If it is equipment and not a service that is involved, a further hurdle to be cleared is getting the attention and support of shipbuilders. Not so easy when the number of individual builders is contracting but essential unless the shipowners themselves can be persuaded to insist on a particular piece of kit.

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