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Roundtable: North American Naval Architects Weigh In

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

September 22, 2022

From left: Mike Fitzpatrick, president, Robert Allan Ltd.; Jeff Bowles, director, DLBA Naval Architects; and Rich Mueller, president and CEO, NETSCo.

From left: Mike Fitzpatrick, president, Robert Allan Ltd.; Jeff Bowles, director, DLBA Naval Architects; and Rich Mueller, president and CEO, NETSCo.

Marine News spoke to leaders at three North American naval architecture and marine engineering firms about some of the latest trends impacting their business today. Mike Fitzpatrick, president, Robert Allan Ltd.; Jeff Bowles, director, DLBA Naval Architects; and Rich Mueller, president and CEO, NETSCo., weigh in on topics such as digitalization, decarbonization and the naval architect talent pool.

How do you view the maritime industry’s ongoing shifts in areas such as digitalization and decarbonization, and how does your firm fit into the picture?
MF: Decarbonization is obviously one of the major factors affecting the marine business right now. A few years ago owners were asking us, ‘How do we reduce emissions?’ The question they’re asking now is, ‘What’s our path to net zero?’ That’s a really big shift in planning for the future, because the answers are very different, and there’s a lot more unknowns involved.

We’re fortunate enough to have some of the more forward-thinking shipowners and shipyards as our clients. The shipyards want to be sure that they’re among the first to adopt the new technologies into built vessels. The owners that are saying, “What type of vessels are we going to be operating 10 or 20 years from now? We better figure out what’s going to work now.” If there was one perfect solution for everything, this would all be easy, but there’s not. In many cases, it’s not a one solution fits all for any vessel to go down a decarbonization route. It is very much dependent on the operating conditions, the load profile, the areas of operation. And in many cases, what we’re looking at is really a choice between a number of challenging options. Owners are asking us which of these are going to work.

RM: If we look at decarbonization, that is something that every ship owner wants to do, but as they start to explore it, they find that it’s not a simple task. They find that they need engineering support to do that. And whether that’s changing out engines, whether that’s changing out fuels, whether that’s economic studies that look at, “Hey, should I go slower? What are some of the things that I should be doing in order to reduce my carbon footprint?” Those take engineering support, and most shipowners—not all, but most—over the years have shed their in-house engineering departments. They’re more focused on operations and don’t have a lot of engineering support; many ship owners just don’t have the bandwidth, so they rely on outside firms like ours to help them.

Digitalization is a little different animal because those are tools that we need to use in order to help us become more efficient, or to help us put ourselves in a position where we have the tools and the software that we need to do the modeling and to be able to show the owner what he needs to see in order for them to make the decision on capital expenditures. For us, it means finding different ways to do business. It isn’t just guys sitting at drawing boards with T-squares and slide rules like in the really old days. It’s not even just doing drafting work because digitalization implies that we’re building manipulable, 3D models of their vessels that they can use to perhaps optimize loading or optimize speed power curves or any of the things that will help them to operate more efficiently.

JB: We are interested in these trends and are on the leading edge of their implementation. Gibbs & Cox was one of the early adopters of computer aided design (CAD) and began exploring laser scanning technology as soon as it appeared. We are currently working with virtual reality (VR) tools and software to support design efforts. We are looking forward to augmented reality and how that might help construction, training and maintenance activities. There are many potential uses for the technology, and we are collaborating with industry to find the right applications.
Regarding decarbonization, we have established a new office in Houston to focus on the oil and gas market, but more importantly to lead our entry into the Blue Economy market with projects associated with alternate sources of energy production. These could include wind energy, wave energy, hydrogen production, fuel cell integration, etc.

Are you seeing growing interest in vessel electrification and alternative fuels, and where is most attention being directed? How do you see the evolution of power/propulsion solutions in the marine business?
RM: Yes, we are seeing a definite increase in interest in alternative fuels. But as you might suspect, at least in our business, it’s in a certain segments of the market. Shipowners that are making long transatlantic, transpacific voyages are not as interested, or at least that’s been our experience so far. The folks who are really coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, let’s take a closer look.’ They’re tug owners, they’re coastwise trading folks. They’re folks who are in shorter, more defined trade routes, not in the tramp business. They’re in trade routes where they’re coming to defined places, they know they’re going to be at port X so they can put a fueling station there, and they know they’re going to be there every four or five days, or some manageable amount.

One of the things we see with most of the alternative fuels is they either take up a lot more volume in terms of space than using diesel, or the BTU content is not as high, and therefore they need more of it in order to have the same endurance rating for their voyages. We’re seeing it more in the tug and barge market. We’re seeing it in the short sea shipping markets. We’re seeing it just in the short run coastwise trading. Tampa to New Orleans, or Houston to Tampa, or Charleston to New York, or whatever, just in a very small defined trade route.

JB: We are seeing a growing interest in alternative fuels and electrification. We focus on high-speed craft in our group, and the technology is not mature enough yet for widespread application on these craft. Maybe for recreational craft, but not for commercial or military craft where endurance is valuable. The shortcoming here is that the total weight of the electrified propulsion system far exceeds the weight of a conventional propulsion system, and the vessel’s performance capabilities are negatively impacted significantly as a result. But there are great use cases, such as harbor tugs, because they are not often weight limited. There are hybrid tugs and now all electric tugs in operation today. There will be a hydrogen tug soon. And that’s a great application for hydrogen technology because these boats always return to the same port, so a single refueling station can be installed to support the vessel over its life.

There is no doubt that the marine industry has the initiative to go all electric, pulling power from the grid or from renewables such as solar and hydrogen. But I don’t believe that we will see all electric ships or fast craft in my lifetime. I don’t think that the energy storage or onboard hydrogen generation systems will evolve to have the capacity and power density necessary for the operating profiles for those type of craft.

MF: I’m going to talk mainly about the part of the market that I know best, and that’s the tug market. Somewhere between 70 and 100 tugs of our design are built every year around the world, which represents a fairly significant percentage of the world market. The easy path to decarbonization for some of those tugs is pure battery electric. That’s a technology that we now consider to be completely a proven technology and relatively straightforward to integrate into a tug. Unfortunately, because of the operating profiles of tugs and the power density needed, there’s probably only about 10% of our typical tug client operations that would be suitable for pure battery electric.

More widely used is going to be some form of hybrid battery electric where we’ve probably still got some kind of combustion engine together with batteries. And that’s maybe another 30% of the market where that might be economically feasible for typical ship handling tug operations. But for at least 60% of the market, electrification isn’t really the answer. The tugs have to operate too long. They need too high a load profile power required. So really alternate fuels is the only feasible solution for most tug operations, and I would say for most commercial vessel operations, alternate fuels is ultimately going to be the solution we’re looking at down the road.

Where do you see greatest opportunities in the U.S. market currently? What is your firm doing to capitalize?
JB: I would have to say offshore wind. With talks about needing 300-400 crew transfer vessels (CTV) to support U.S. wind farms over the next 10-15 years, that’s a lot of boats. Our team is trying to break the CTV paradigm for the boat and operational tempo. Our operational landscape is different from the North Sea, and what is great there may not be the best for us. We are working on a monohull design that meets or exceeds the performance parameters that wind farm developers are looking for, but at the same time has a lower total ownership cost. Stay tuned for updates on our design!

RM: Well, certainly looking forward, offshore wind—and whether that’s with support vessels involved in construction of offshore wind platforms or installations, or whether it’s in helping offshore wind developers come up with new designs for floating platforms or offshore installations that can go in ever deeper water—we see that as a real up-and-coming market. It’s still a ways out, but we’re pretty heavily invested in trying to be a part of that market right from the get go because we think it’s going to be big in the long run. There’s certainly a lot of activity, but not yet a lot of construction.

MF: While we’re strongly in favor of decarbonization because it’s the right thing to do, it also presents an opportunity for our company. Robert Allan is somewhat unique in that we’re a relatively large firm of naval architects that focuses almost entirely on small commercial workboats, whereas most of our competitors in that market are quite a bit smaller than us without necessarily the breadth of experience, certainly in terms of the number vessels that get built. So as the vessels get more complex technically, that plays into our strength here as a company. The fact that we build so many vessels means we get the opportunity to learn from each one. If you’re only having five vessels built of your design every year, it takes a while to build up that experience, whereas if we’re doing 100 a year, each one’s an opportunity for us to learn and then apply that knowledge to the next one.

When a vessel owner comes to us, they need to trust that we’re going to give them a working vessel at the end. And I think we’ve built up over the years a pretty good reputation for integrating new technologies and delivering not R&D platforms, but actual working vessels. That puts us in pretty good stead going forward with most of the operators in the U.S. We have a number of really good and very loyal owner clients in the U.S. that we’ve developed good boats for in the past, and they look to us to develop more in the future. So, maintaining our leading position in terms of technology creates opportunity for us, for sure.

What do you see as the number one technology or innovation over the course of your career that has most impacted commercial marine operations?
RM: Certainly among the biggest things that have impacted our work have been the advancements in software. It started with AutoCAD and other products like AutoCAD, CAD drafting, computerized drafting, but it’s gone well past that. The power that software is giving us, modeling software, and in particular computational fluid dynamic (CFD) software, has been incredibly helpful in terms of doing things that we used to have to just often guess at. It really has helped change some of our work, which used to be more art than science. And now we can bring the science to bear because the computer modeling software is just so much better. And whether that is evidenced by improved loading manuals or hydrostatic modeling software, or CFD modeling, or vessel interaction, this has all been incredibly improved.

MF: Digitalization has made our job much easier and we’re able to deliver a greater package to our shipyard clients that covers a lot more. CFD has been a real game changer for a lot of areas in what we do and allows us to know with near certainty how a vessel’s going to perform, even though it, at this point, just exists only on paper and in a computer. That allows us as a firm of naval architects to take on more challenging one-off projects, knowing that the risks can be mitigated in CFD. So, that’s a pretty big one for us.

Many firms in the commercial maritime sector cite the attraction and retainment of qualified/talented staff among top challenges. What does the talent pool and job market for naval architecture/marine engineering look like? Are these challenges as present in your part of the industry?
JB: The DLBA Division of Gibbs & Cox has doubled in size over the last four years, so we are acutely familiar with the challenge of finding good staff in the present marketplace. We are seeing a strong desire to work from home, which doesn’t suit our business model. We find we are much better as a co-located team because of the small size and fast pace of our projects, as well as the need to be dynamic to address customer needs, all the while training and mentoring our junior staff. We are also specialized in small and high-speed craft, which limits our resource pool. But the winners are out there for those who are patient. We have built a team of A-gamers here at DLBA, and they are a pleasure to work with daily.

MF: Finding experienced staff, for us, is a challenge. There’s not many here in Canada so we do hire people from overseas; about 50% of our staff were not born in Canada, which makes for a diverse workforce. And we’ve had good luck hiring straight out of university. But really, the way we’ve been able to mitigate the challenge of finding staff is by having very good staff retention. We went through a period a few years ago where we went four years without a single person leaving the company. Even at its worst, out of a workforce of about 100, if we have two people leave the company a year, that would be a lot for any given year. Staff retention is really important to our business, and we’ve done a really good job of it. We have someone here who’s just celebrating their 50th work anniversary.

Our average experience time with the company here is probably 15 to 20 years. We have a lot of people that stay here and plan to stay here, and that means we don’t lose that experience and everybody gets better and more efficient at their jobs. People don’t make mistakes twice, so if we keep the same people, then those mistakes don’t reoccur. Our way of dealing with the challenge of finding experienced new people is not to need any new people because we’ve kept all the old ones.

Treating people with respect is key. And, as an engineering firm, giving people interesting and challenging work is probably the secret sauce. As much as I’d like to say it’s the way we treat people—we value a work life balance, we pay people for every single hour of overtime they work—I think really what keeps people here is we get a lot of stuff built. We get a lot of different, interesting projects.

RM: We start with the premise that the number of naval architects and marine engineers is far smaller than what the market needs right now. If I look at the U.S. Navy and then I add in class societies, and then I add in design firms, and then I add in operating companies, the demand on the number of naval architects and marine engineers is far outstripped by the school’s capacity to train new ones. And the Navy and some of the bigger companies can maybe afford to bring on young people right out of school or with very little experience because they can provide the training, but I can’t. I can’t afford to hire people right out of school in many cases because my clients pay us for the knowledge and the experience that we have. I’m looking for people with 10 years, or 15, 20 years of experience, because they’re the ones who can be turned loose on projects, and I don’t have to put somebody else to watch over them and make my whole staff less efficient. It’s been a challenge to find experienced people, although in the last four months we’ve brought a couple of new folks in at NETSCo., and it’s been really a good fit for us. But I’m still short a few people.

What is one recent project you are most proud of, and why?
RM: I happen to be in Boston right now in the midst of commissioning a barge mounted ship unloader that essentially has turned our Boston-based client’s terminal into a new import facility. Now the client is able to import product directly to their Boston terminal, unload it and put it into their silos at a rate that they never could have dreamed of before. This is not the first import facility we’ve done, but the most recent. And it’s right here in the busy Northeast where infrastructure and the need for concrete has really been increasing in scope, and they can’t build new plants. They can’t make more product here in the U.S., so they have to import it. This has been a very interesting project for us. It combines our bulk material handling expertise, our machinery expertise, our dock and facility expertise all into one project. It’s something I’m very proud of.

JB: We recently supported OceanAero with their Triton platform, a sail- and solar-powered, autonomous unmanned surface vessel (USV). Our effort focused on modifying the wingsail geometry to improve sailing performance. Our DLBA team collaborated with our new counterparts at Leidos to create a computerized routine to refine the geometry and evaluated the results using computational fluid dynamics (CFD). We achieved great results on paper and the new geometry test article is under fabrication, with testing scheduled for later this year. I’m proud of this project because working with sail powered vessels is new for DLBA, and we were able to collaborate with new teammates, both internal and external. It’s relationships that lead to success, and it looks like this team’s initial effort will be a success.

MF: One recent project that’s really quite interesting for us is right here in British Columbia. Shell is building a massive new LNG export terminal up in Kitimat, LNG Canada, and one of our good clients, Seaspan, together with First Nations have a joint venture to operate the support vessels for the contract.

There’s five of these vessels under construction right now, and they’re of two different designs to support the LNG terminal. Three of the tugs are 60-ton battery electric with a diesel generator—by far the largest tugs with the largest battery banks ever built. They have something in the area of just under 6,000 kilowatt hours of batteries. To compare that, most of the other battery electric tugs that are being built are in the 2,000-3,500 range. They will be able to conduct most of their normal operations completely on batteries. Those are being built in Turkey at Sanmar Shipyard right now, and we’ll be expecting those coming to B.C. next year. In addition, there’s two big hybrid LNG fueled escort tugs, over 100 tons bollard pull, that will be escorting the LNG carriers in and out of the terminal. These are technically very advanced, very, very powerful escort tugs. These are going to be two of the designs that are the most technically advanced designs that have ever been built.

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