An automated future

Sweden’s largest – ‘Sovereign Clipper’ pioneered electronic control of its large-bore 12-cylinder engine Sweden’s largest – ‘Sovereign Clipper’ pioneered electronic control of its large-bore 12-cylinder engine

Proof that, 50 years ago, Britain still regarded its shipbuilding industry as significant was evident in a full-page message in a prominent position in the January 1965 issue of The Motor Ship, from the Rt Hon Roy Mason, government minister responsible for shipbuilding and shipping (in that order, believe it or not).

The minister recognised the importance of shipbuilding to the national economy, and the fact that the yards were modern, well-equipped and efficient. He stated the government’s policy was to further opportunities for world trade and ensure British shipping had a fair chance to compete. However, with hindsight, we could see a hint of what was to come. He warned that overseas yards offered cheaper ships, and British builders must improve productivity and reduce costs. His view was echoed in another article, by A.J. Marr, president of the Shipbuilding Conference, London, whose answer to the Japanese was to work faster and cut costs building large tankers and bulkers rather than a considered plan to focus on specialised, high quality tonnage, which was the answer adopted by the Scandinavians.

Many like to blame trade union militancy for the death of shipbuilding and many other British industries. But comparing Britain with, say, Norway, where costs are even higher, it is plain that the real problem was a lack of real support and investment from above, and no direction in finding markets in which British yards could effectively compete, preferring to take the short-term, cheapest solution regardless of its effect on whole communities, mostly far away from the seat of power in Westminster.

But enough of political issues. Cutting costs in operation, rather than building, seemed to be the order of the day. Increased automation and reduced manning were seen as the future of our industry. As befits a January issue, many column inches were given over to reviews and predictions, all of which drew similar conclusions.

A 56,700dwt tanker, Fina Scandinavia, was the subject of a detailed description, in particular of its sophisticated hydraulics allowing remote control of the machinery and cargo gear. Incidentally, the ship was delivered from Burmeister & Wain in Copenhagen in 61 days, from keel laying to launching. What was that about shipyards needing to work faster to compete? Machinery and cargo gear were controlled from separate offices, each with impressive-looking consoles of dials and switches, with a separate console on the bridge for engine control. Starting, stopping and reversing were all automatically handled from a bridge-mounted panel, linked to a sophisticated electro-hydraulic system which ensured correct sequence and timing of all manoeuvres. This system was supplemented by a data logger that recorded all actions on punched tape so that data could be sent ashore by wire or fed into a computer for analysis. It seems primitive now, of course, but was ground-breaking technology in 1965.

Other forward-looking features predicted a growth in medium speed diesel engines for large ship propulsion, and the use of large controllable pitch propellers. The two didn’t necessarily go together; examples were quoted of CP propellers being used with low speed two-strokes of up to 15,000bhp.

Another ship description looked at the Sovereign Clipper, the largest Swedish ship afloat, a tanker of 73,650dwt and 244m length. Powered by a 22,800bhp Kockum-MAN engine of 12 cylinders and 840mm bore, she was indeed state-of-the-art in 1965. Naturally, the engine was set up for bridge control, linked to a Kockum-ASEA electronic system in the separate engine control room.

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