Advancing engines in challenging times

30 Oct 2017
Stump: Playing in niches is risky... you don’t want to spend millions developing an engine you’re only going to sell three times

Stump: Playing in niches is risky... you don’t want to spend millions developing an engine you’re only going to sell three times

For Winterthur Gas & Diesel (WinGD), the focus during a slow market has been on developing proven technologies and analytics improvements. Andrew Stump, vice president operations, discusses the company’s recent developments.

Winterthur’s entire portfolio is new – the oldest of its current X generation of engines has only been in service for three years, and the largest engines – for Aframax an Suezmax ships – have been operational for just over two years. But the “newest baby of all” is the X-DF range, with engines in service since the beginning of 2017. The vessels in service with the latest dual-fuel engines – the successors to Wärtsilä RT-Flex range – include four 15,000dwt chemical tankers owned by Terntank Rederi and three of an eventual four asphalt/chemical tankers for the Canadian Groupe Desgagnés.

Stump reports that the initial operational feedback from these vessels has been related to the ship-engine interface rather than gas operation itself. These are rudimentary quality control problems such as cable terminations and flange alignments, he says, rather than problems with the technology.

“One of the vessels is operating around 85% on gas, which is its target,” he notes. “Some of the other engines are having mechanical problems that are preventing them from reaching that level of availability.”

A major landmark for WinGD’s low-pressure dual-fuel technology came with the recent sea trial of the first twin-screw gas carrier to carry the engines, built by Hyundai Heavy Industries for SK Shipping. Stump notes that this, along with vessels operating permanently in SOx emission control areas (ECAs) such as the Baltic Sea and Great Lakes, is a key market for the X-DF series.

The low-pressure gas injection, Otto cycle technology proposed by WinGD for dual-fuel low-speed engines is inevitably compared to the high-pressure injection, Diesel cycle technology advocated by counterpart MAN Diesel & Turbo. For Stump, the difference comes down to how ship operators will use the engines in reality.

Focus on gas

“If you want to run on gas with liquid fuel as an emergency solution, take our engine,” he says. “We start with a focus on gas while our competitor talks about their engine running quite well on either fuel. We’re moving on from there, and phase two for us is fuel sharing – running on a cocktail of both gas and liquid fuel.”

There are pros and cons to both technologies. While WinGD has an advantage in capital cost for new engines, its rival can offer potentially easier retrofitting from its base engine technology. Having said that, Stump believes that very few of the so-called ‘gas-ready’ vessels on the market today will ever be retrofitted.

“Ship owners like options. If they can get an option that they can exercise later in the lifetime of the vessel they’ll take it, even if it means a bit more money in the beginning. But it’s a gamble. I think the retrofitting costs will be inhibitive later on – it’s not just about the engine, the cost is in the system. And dual fuel technology is changing so rapidly, why prepare for an engine that may already be obsolete by the time you decide to convert.”

The upshot for Stump is that WinGD’s dual-fuel offering is in a position that can only get stronger as gas as a marine fuel matures and operators feel more secure in looking at predominantly gas operation.

If gas is a long-term emissions solution for WinGD’s customers, compliance in the medium term –after the global sulphur cap is introduced in 2020 – will demand the use of either low-sulphur fuel or heavy fuel oil and scrubbers. But those technologies do little if anything to reduce NOx emissions, and while the tightest restrictions are today only applicable to new ships sailing in the North American and Caribbean ECAs, Tier III limits will be enforced more widely (starting with the Baltic Sea and North Sea) from 2021. When it comes to NOx abatement technologies for liquid fuel engines, WinGD is clearly backing selective catalytic reduction (SCR) over exhaust gas recirculation (EGR).

Proven technology

Low-pressure SCR is becoming an attractive and relatively easy solution, Stump notes, while the high-pressure option is preferred by shipyards as it is more compact and comes on the engine. “SCR is a proven technology over the past fifty to seventy years, it just needs to be marinized and simplified.”

Conversely, he believes that shipyards do not like EGR. “It’s complicated and carries some risks,” says Stump, referring to the possible recirculation of sulphurous exhaust should the in-built scrubber fail. “But I think the main issue is capex.”

WinGD has tested EGR, and will continue to do so, he says. But at the same time Stump is aware of the danger of chasing small segments. “Playing in niches is a risky game. When you’re looking at ship orders of less than 1,000 or even 500 ships a year, a niche might mean three engines. You don’t want to spend US$20 million on research and development for an engine you’re only going to sell three times.”

If the company is not seeking new niches, it is still investing in upgrades that can be applied across the engine portfolio. One such investment is its recent project on engine data.

Stump explains: “The historical issue for engines is that the computer which runs them has a very small memory. If the power goes down or the ship stops and you spend a day solving the problem, when you look back for engine data all you see is a day’s worth of alarms. There’s no history of what happened in the days leading up to the event.

“That’s a problem because if the crew fixes the problem, they then report to the shore staff who report the issue to us. We ask some questions back, which generates more questions from the crew. Then you factor in the time difference and, hey presto, you’ve sent three days messing around. And all the time you are losing engine data that could help identify the problem.”

Empowering owners

WinGD’s project, or more correctly two projects, focus on empowering owners to hold a data history – one they can then choose to share with the engine company if they wish. First WinGD worked with Polish company Enamor to design a more powerful engine computer, which reads 500 data signals from the engine and sends it by satellite wherever the customer wants. The computer can store up a terabyte of data, a year’s worth of engine input, dramatically increasing the engine history available to owners.

Next, the company worked with engine data experts Propulsion Analytics to develop algorithms that can both determine an engine’s historic signature – based on those 500 inputs – and monitor if it starts to drift. That is a useful tool for one vessel, but the value really begins to accrue once owners can compare engine performance across a fleet of ships, says Stump.

All new engines are now being built with the computer and analytics available, and owners can choose to either retain or turn off the functionality after their warranty period. But, Stump adds, owners who have switched off analytics can still ask for it to be reinstated if they encounter a problem.

While WinGD is investing in the digital functionality of its engines, it is unlikely to develop the portfolio much over the next 18 months, Stump says. The company has reported a strong orderbook for the new 570mm-bore X57, which has recently passed type-approval and factory tests (see box), but the general market forecasts do not encourage rapid development.

The slow pace of newbuilding is not necessarily terrible for a company like WinGD – Stump claims that in low markets the engine developer traditionally gains share, suggesting its customers are very stable. Meanwhile the company’s focus on digital enhancements and proven technologies (be it SCR or low-pressure dual-fuel engines) highlights WinGD’s strategy for weathering challenging market conditions, says Stump: “Stick with what you’re doing and get it right.”