I actually enjoy taking stock of a past year in its last few days. The office tends to be quiet and a few moments of introspection can be interesting. This year I did not have any real innovations or significant developments in mind as far as 2019 milestones are concerned. I wondered if 2019 was actually as dull and barren as I felt it to be. I went back to my 2018 list for comparison and thought: “Hmm, just more of the same.” That may be bad (2018 ethical issues), or good (2018 offshore wind and waves) and that made me scroll back to earlier my earlier annual ruminations.
And, slowly, I did become inspired to comment on 2019. 2019 could be described as “more of the same,” but in a very complex fashion that, to a significant extent, is encouraging for the most motivated professionals in maritime engineering and technology.
What I noticed is that, as maritime engineers, technologists and operators, we have to manage two very strong additional drivers. The first driver is sustainability and the other driver is an incredibly rapid pace of innovative technologies that can provide new solutions when properly packaged in the maritime engineering game.
At first I was concerned that I had gotten stuck in old man moaning where everything was better and simpler when I was young, but I really don’t think so.
I started in this industry when the big question was: Diesel or Steam? Once diesel was selected, there were other downstream selections based on the service pattern of the vessel, such as low speed, medium speed, or high speed engines, but they were always either/or choices. Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering has always dealt with such system integrations, but while steam has essentially disappeared, today just the propulsion package choice has become incredibly more complicated, since the variations are endless. When discussing just the basic prime mover options, today engineers have stuff in their toolbox that simply did not exist 10 years ago, and all of which requires engineering consideration. And generally that consideration takes place in the context of sustainability. Just from a powering point of view, it is becoming increasingly likely that a vessel will have a combination of prime mover options. In the industry we call them hybrids. Once there is a discussion of hybrids in biology, the lid is off and the combinations are endless. Remember, there are literally thousands of different apple hybrids, dog hybrids, and rose hybrids. In the same way, a hybrid in ships is not just an IC plant with some type of battery back up. That is just the first simple hybrid. Once the lid is off on hybrids, the game inherently becomes much more complicated; one can have an IC/battery hybrid plant with sail back up, and trailing propeller and solar panel charging. That was just a simple example; I can easily think of much more complex hybrid solutions that are entirely viable in certain applications. Not every ship will be deeply hybridized, but when sustainability is the driver, inevitably, there will be applications where a complex hybrid would be the most viable solution. And I haven’t even mentioned fuel choices: LNG, ammonia, fossil fuel, biofuel, hydrogen?
Keep in mind that I just discussed propulsion, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Next to propulsion, we are also in the middle of a hull design revolution. Catamarans have become very prevalent, but there are dozens of different catamaran designs, and monohulls are still viable in many situations. And how about SWATHs or SWATH hybrids or foilers or foil assisted catamarans or even WISES? Again, the combinations are endless. In years past we would not touch the complicated concepts with a 10 foot wooden shaft boat pole. Today we might not touch them with a 20 foot carbon fiber shaft boat pole, except for the fact that sustainability, general empirical experience with new technologies, and powerful performance prediction tools are compelling designers to pay attention to these more complex hull hybrids.
A few years ago one could argue that to build such a complex hybrid hull would just be too expensive, but today we have NC cutting and nesting, robotic welding and even hull printing, so engineers are not left with an easy excuse to ignore such complex hull concepts.
A few years ago a vessel always had a crew and to determine the crew size was either a regulatory or a task counting exercise, but, today, we have to consider fully crewed and autonomous vessels as potential options and every hybrid in between. That becomes particularly complicated when one considers that adding or removing crew in a ship design has a very significant impact on the overall design of the ship. A crewless ship needs no cabins, galley, etc, but needs exceptional boarding design for emergencies and different operational redundancies.
To me, 2019 has provided me with the realization that in 2020 engineers have to study harder, work harder and pay more attention to make sure they are familiar with all these technologies and trade-off dynamics to be able to provide suitable answers to complex sustainability questions.
Working harder is not always fun; but if we call it “working smarter,” maybe it is. Moreover, this increased complexity means that the odds that Artificial Intelligence will make the best engineers obsolete is much reduced. The same cannot be said for every job, profession, or industry in 2020.
May your prospects be good in 2020…… and pay attention; don’t work like a robot, or you will be replaced by one very quickly.
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Illustration credits: Upper image Mary Mattingly (Copyright), lower image M&O (Copyright)