While convention holds that the most vital marine technological advances happen in or around the engine room and bridge, the business of coating and corrosion control - stripping, preparing and applying - arguably poses the most strenuous test the marine environment offers. It is a vessel's initial coating and maintenance thereafter that largely determines a vessel's lifecycle, thus its profitability. Coatings, much like mechanical systems
, require constant attention to ensure that they are performing the duty required, namely maintaining the structural integrity of the steel beneath
That said, the last place a vessel owner want to see its vessel is in drydock, with a battalion of workers vigorously peeling, stripping and chipping away at a vessel's armor. Maintaining a healthy outer coatings has long been considered a low-tech, dirty and time-consuming task. Beyond profitability, vessel coating removal raises a number of industry "hot buttons," from worker safety to environmental concerns.
UltraStrip Systems Inc.
with its unique new M2000 Robot System, aims to dispel many of these commonly held notions and problems associated with coating removal.
The patented robotic M2000 hydroblasting technology is designed to, in a time and cost-efficient manner, remove old coatings from a given structure. While many new technologies try to lay the claim of "born out of space age technology," the M2000 system can claim so with no hesitation, as it was born out of a partnership between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the National Robotics Engineering Consortium (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ultrastrip.
A single drydock solution is comprised of seven major component assemblies: two M2000 robotic units, two ultra-high pressure pumps, two vacuum/generator units and a single filtration system. The entire, interconnected system works in a closed loop, and water is constantly being reused for zero discharge into the environment.
Two M2000 robotic units are magnetically attached to each side of the ship in dry dock, and are controlled by an operator with a joystick type device, allowing for 360-degree movement along a vessel's curvatures. The unit moves at speeds up to 20 in. (51 cm) per second. An ultra-high pressure pump supplies clean, filtered water to the units, which strip the coatings an corrosion to any level of surface preparation, from simple pressure cleaning to HB 2.5.
A vacuum/generator is used to pull the wastewater with the paint residue and all particulate contaminants back to the holding tank, and ultimately to the water filtration unit. The water filtration unit captures the contaminated coatings slurry, separates all particulate contaminants from the wastewater, and recycles the clean water back to the robotic vessel.
At the end of 2001 the system was put to the test at one of the world's busiest ship repair facilities, Lisnave in Portugal. While the jury is still out, the unit received its first big test with the stripping of the FSO Jamestown, a 30,000-dwt Panamax-sized tanker built in 1956. Recently reactivated for conversion to a sludge incineration plant to handle sludge from the oil fields on the west coast of Africa, the vessel provided a stout test as approximately 100,000 sq. ft. of coatings were removed from the sides and bottom of the ship, and the long deactivation had fouled her hull with rock-like barnacles. "We were given a ship in terrible condition, and the M2000 passed the trial to the amazement of all industry onlookers," said Robert O. Baratta, President and CEO of Ultrastrip, in a letter to shareholders.
Shipyards, particularly those dedicated to repair, work on notoriously tight margins and operate in shaky business conditions during the best of times. These companies are often hesitant to invest in new systems, as traditional business-as-usual edicts and tight purse strings rule. But times are changing, and the ability to get vessels in and out quickly, while providing maximum protection to the environment, will be the standard business model, not the exception. Systems such as UltraStrip's M2000 will undoubtedly become the cost of doing business.
Stripping coatings, even without the threat of environmental damage, is generally regarded as a dirty operation, and undesirable for surrounding communities and operations.
"Those shipyards that don't convert may be left in their own dust," said Dennis McGuire, founder of UltraStrip, in company literature.
The harmful effects of TBT and other biocides found in anti-foulant paints has increased this perception, and has resulted in a worldwide push to keep these elements from entering the environment. Closed-loop systems such as the UltraStip plan effectively provide all levels of hull treatment while keeping these elements contained.
To offer some basis for comparison, UltraStrip says that the M2000, to complete a job totaling 20,000 sq. m., would take 50 hours utilizing six drydock operators with 1.3 metric tons of waste. The company claims that, based on its statistics, the system pays for itself in one year. After that, extrapolating labor, consumables and equipment costs, the company claims that a shipyard realizes more than $155,000 in operating cost saves per 20,000 sq. m.
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