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A container vessel solution that thinks outside the box

Kongsberg Maritime’s 2000 TEU container feeder concept adopts the principle of future-proofing from the bottom up, so that shipowners can invest in tomorrow by starting today

Container vessels are vital to global commerce. However, the sustainability of transporting goods thousands of miles is also a key focus when considering the fragility of endangered ocean ecosystems. For these two opposing arguments to find resolution, it is clear that an environmentally-responsible, cost-effective and future-proof next-generation cargo vessel solution must be a priority for the shipping industry.

Maritime investors are understandably cautious at present, especially given the damage to trading caused by international pandemic lockdown measures. Nevertheless, the cargo sector has been one of the very few over the last year which has been able to operate, if not normally, then certainly at the highest capacity achievable within the restrictions.

Additionally, through a mixture of legal necessity, financial diligence and basic common sense, there are general trends in shipping that will continue regardless of circumstances. These factors include emissions reduction and the gradual transition to zero-carbon fuels, the implementation of digital strategies and a significant increase in remote and autonomous operations.

The renowned Norwegian integrated technology and systems provider Kongsberg Maritime (KM) has been working on ways to meet the coming needs of the container shipping industry for some time, developing a concept design for a future-proof cargo vessel that shipowners can effectively order today, secure in the knowledge that their purchase will be a long-term investment which will still be accommodating new technologies and generating strong ROI 15 years from now.

Plug-and-play

KM’s extensive research, planning and testing is initially focused on the feeder market, with an innovative new design for a 2000 TEU vessel. Demonstrating the broad range of factors which the company has had to build into its thinking, this definitively future-proof vessel is ready to incorporate a large number of potential variables.

No one can be certain when cargo owners and end consumers will uniformly demand green transport solutions or when a blanket transition to alternative fuels will be mandated, but that day is certainly coming. “It’s a big dilemma for many shipowners in the current market,” says Oskar Levander, SVP Business Concepts, Kongsberg Maritime. “They know that a fuel transition will happen, but the rules are not yet in place. They don’t know when it’s going to happen, and don’t really know what the best fuel is likely to be in the future. Is it going to be a biofuel, is it going to be ammonia, or synthetic methane?

“At the same time, a shipowner can be quite certain that if he buys a ship today, that ship will experience fuel transition during its working lifetime,” continues Levander. “So how do you prepare for that? Our solution is to design a ship that can easily evolve with time. The fact that its components will definitely be changed and upgraded has been taken into consideration from the very beginning.”

Accordingly, the 2000 TEU’s design principles accentuate adaptability with a series of holistic concepts to make it a sensible and economically attractive mid- and long-term proposition for shipowners. Key to the vessel’s future-proof viability are modular, plug-and-play components, such as containers for the power pack and selected systems, which are easy to retrofit, upgrade and convert. Other, more expensive parts such as engines and tanks will be able to smoothly weather the transition with only minimal adjustments to parts such as valves and connections, as Levander points out.

“The likelihood is that we will start producing this vessel using LNG as our main approach, but the idea is that shipowners can easily switch to liquid biogas or synthetic LNG, using the same engine whenever that fuel becomes available at an attractive cost, because it’s essentially the same fuel. Basically, LNG is methane, biogas is methane and synthetic is methane: it’s the same molecule, it’s just produced in different ways. So purchasers would be quite safeguarded because three of the potential future fuels would be applicable for use on their ship.”

Additional tanks

The 2000 TEU container feeder concept accommodates potential alternative fuel solutions as a matter of course. It acknowledges the assumption that shipowners may opt for extra capacity by installing, say, a larger ammonia tank alongside an existing LNG tank, so space is already allocated for additional tanks.

Future-proofing principles of this nature resonate throughout the concept’s modular design. Mindful of the requirement to provide a sensible long-term investment by keeping purchasing and operating costs as well as weight to a minimum, KM’s 2000 TEU container feeder is envisaged as an open-top, low-ballast, Kielmax (and potentially ice class) vessel with no need for heavy cargo hatches, and with its tanks situated beneath the cargo space. Its battery containers will be sited forward to improve trim, while the deckhouse will also be located forward to help protect the cargo against green water coming into the ship.

Tarpaulins will provide further protection for the containers, which will slot between ingenious cell guides. “These partitions are watertight below the waterline and mesh above,” Levander notes. “The cell guides will speed up the loading and unloading process, because the containers don’t need to be lashed so much: on more conventional container ships, they’d normally need to be tied down to each other. It’s all part of the future-proofing concept: making vessels which are very lean, with fewer crew members required.”

Remote support

Where any future-proof vessel design is concerned, digitalisation will sit right at its heart, shifting the balance of personnel from onboard crew to shore control. This ‘smart ship’ ethos represents a means of improving operational safety, efficiency and regulatory compliance while steadily removing all barriers between fleets and shoreside teams. The 2000 TEU container feeder is accordingly foreseen as a digitally advanced ship, primed to take advantage of evolving remote support and autonomous technologies while also benefiting from KM’s integrated solutions for automation, systems management and optimisation.

KONGSBERG’s Vessel Insight SaaS (software as a service) solution, its patented ship-to-cloud data infrastructure, is a key feature of the concept in terms of capturing, aggregating and securely transferring standardised, high-quality, vessel-specific data from the container feeder. The company is keen to emphasise that this service can help to enhance the future commercial trajectory of its customers: it hosts sophisticated data analysis tools and acts as an access portal to other applications and services in the Kognifai maritime marketplace, KONGSBERG’s open digital ecosystem, that could leverage their fleet and vessel data for optimal business value.

Looking ahead

The potential for transformative long-term growth in the cargo shipping segment is clear, but the environmental and regulatory clocks are ticking, and shippers need to start taking the appropriate steps for fleet renewal as soon as possible, if they haven’t done so already. A revised IMO strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships will be adopted in 2023, meaning that vessels will need to meet even more exacting AER (Annual Efficiency Ratio), CII (Carbon Intensity Indicator) and EEXI (Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index) targets.

In one sense, it can appear that the maritime cargo sector is at something of a crossroads, compelled by law, commerce and circumstance to embark upon the next decisive step towards a green, digital future, yet wary of commitment when specific details about the path ahead remain unclear. The heartening news for shipowners is that future-proof, technology-ready solutions are waiting in the wings. Companies such as Kongsberg Maritime have been putting in the hours, developing future-ready solutions such as the 2000 TEU container feeder vessel to help their customers adopt prudent, rational and beneficial long-term strategies when it comes to investing in the next generation of cargo fleets.