‘Team Finland’ hones its edge

15 Feb 2017
Meyer Turku sees ‘Mein Schiff 5’ float away from the quay. Two more vessels of the new series are to follow. Photo: Meyer Turku

Meyer Turku sees ‘Mein Schiff 5’ float away from the quay. Two more vessels of the new series are to follow. Photo: Meyer Turku

After some challenging years, the Finnish shipbuilding industry is again resurgent, buoyed by a supportive government and a cooperative spirit. A booming cruise market and growing demand for Arctic capability have also driven business to its yards, writes Stevie Knight.

Finland. Not a big country, taken by its 5.52 million inhabitants at least, and one with a set of particularly obstinate challenges. To mention just a handful, winters regularly drop to below -25C and its ports freeze over. It has a remote position in an environmentally vulnerable region. And it’s has just been hit by the loss of its once mighty mobile phone industry.

But these characteristics have a flip side: the ice has conferred an unrivalled footing in the Arctic marine industry, ‘clean’ solutions such as batteries and LNG have sprung from its position deep within the Baltic. Further, according to Petri Peltonen, Under-Secretary of State, Finland’s industry has also realised that the tight-knit grouping means they can polish a cooperative approach to advanced engineering. Even the collapse of Nokia has a silver lining according to him, as it’s left a lot of talent to be mopped up by new technologies such as digitisation.

It’s all about ‘Team Finland’, with good reason. While the value added by the maritime cluster to the country’s total averaged around €3.8bn per year during 2012-14, Peltonen adds that when one big ship is delivered there’s a ripple effect so “the whole economy jumps up by one or two percent”. Having said that, ‘Team Finland’ isn’t exclusively Finnish and the country has actively pursued foreign investment as a way to tie its interests into the global industry.

As some of the shipyards have found this strategy comes with challenges: foreign ownership doesn’t always automatically find a balance between the local supply chain, investment and its own bottom line. However, having learnt some hard lessons, Finland is now honing a very specialised offering.

MEYER TURKU

Finnish cruise building is booming again, and with it, the fortunes of the Meyer Turku shipyard. It’s been a long haul. Meyer Turku, along with Arctech Helsinki and Rauma yards, has only recently emerged from a patch of unprecedented turbulence under STX Finland which bought the yards together from Aker back in 2008. Luckily after STX toppled from its perch, 2014 saw the Meyer group swoop in to the rescue, buying up the remaining 30% from the Finnish government eight months later. Fortunately the family-grown German business seems to have values – and supplier relations – more in tune with Finland’s ‘team’ approach.

Happily for the revived cruise sector “the outlook is stable” says Tapani Pulli, deputy CEO. This is downplaying it a little: the yard is looking at matching and even exceeding the output of 2009/10, the era of Allure and Oasis of the Seas, in the next couple of years. Moreover, it’s still a market far from saturation and he points out while there are only a couple of big cruise operators there’s also a limited number of yards to fulfil the rising demand. In fact Meyer Turku itself is responsible for about 10% of the present global order book by tonnage, its German sister holding another 24% slice – between them Meyer and Fincantieri have mopped up most of the world’s present cruise orderbook.

At time of writing the 50,000gt ferry Tallink Megastar (pictured) has just slid away from the quay for its maiden voyage. A €230m build, its technology is a Finnish tour-de-force, meeting the strict Baltic ECA with five, dual-fuel engines, plus shaft lines and propellers coming from Wärtsilä and electrical power plant and energy management system from ABB. It also capitalised on experience picked up during the build of Viking Grace, heralded in 2014 as ‘the most environmentally friendly’ cruise ferry in history.

Tallink 'Megastar' takes shape at Meyer Turku. Photo: Tallink 

It’s becoming a theme: starting from 2019 Meyer Turku is delivering a series of no less than six LNG-fuelled ships. “The biggest challenge by far is integration,” says Pulli’s colleague, Tapani Mylly. He adds that the yard has been pushing development: “For example the tanks on Viking Grace were mounted on the aft deck – on Megastar we’ve been able to bring them inside, into the bottom of the hull.”

Along with LNG, the last pair of vessels for Royal Caribbean will also incorporate fuel cells and the yard is highlighting its success with emerging technologies.  “We are getting a name for ‘first of a kind’ vessels,” says Mylly, “although this does bring challenges.” He adds the biggest spring not so much from a single system as from the complexity of the vessel as a whole: “A lot of systems need to work together, and work together in potentially hostile environments.”

Sheer scale is still a large part of the picture and the next orders get progressively larger: first are two of the newer 110,000gt Mein Schiff series, due for handover in 2018 and 2019.  Then starting in 2019 there’s a series of jumps in tonnage: between 2019 and 2024, there’s four, 180,000gt ships for Carnival and those two really big 200,000gt Icon-class vessels for Royal Caribbean.

Given the dense nature of cruise fit outs – steel being only approximately 20% of the entire value - the accent is firmly on sharpening the modular build formula. The engine rooms and HVAC elements are, as far as possible, prefabricated and then lifted onboard as complete modules. This theme continues across the ship: several deck areas are combined into grand blocks and outfitted before being brought into the 365m by 80m dock. However, while the 600t crane can cope with present, 500t lifts, out in the yard there’s a sight that doesn’t seem to be ship-shaped: “These are main girdles for our new gantry crane,” says Mylly. The fact is, the number of new, large builds could stretch the yard’s capacity, so while it will only be 10m higher than its 600 tonne sister (which will carry on working alongside it), the new crane is to have 1,200 tonnes of lift capability and as a result “we will be able to put together bigger grand blocks and outfit them further before taking them into the dry dock”.

But the most “time critical” process is installing the accommodation: “After all, there are thousands of cabins... and there’s simply a limit to how many you can put in a day, it’s something you can’t speed up that much,” explains Mylly. “If something goes wrong, then that impacts the whole build.” So, time is shaved by using tailored cradles to lift each of the cabins that come in from the cabin factory at Piikkio, 27km away. However, it’s the scheduling that makes the largest difference: “It’s a bit like building a pyramid... you have to get the order right.” Having said this, the half-built ships seem a lot more complex than anything ancient Egypt threw up.

Further, the new orders have pushed a rebuild of the steel storage and treatment facility, just one of many long overdue steps. There’s a good few years of underinvestment to catch up on and CEO Jan Meyer said at the start of works that the fact this area is so badly in need of an upgrade “gives an indication” of the necessity of replacing older assets. However, in his view, rather than being “just a burden... it’s a great chance for modernizing our production”. The new facilities, he said, will come out bigger, better and underpinned by sophisticated IT.

Therefore there are challenges ahead - but space isn’t one of them: Meyer Turku sits on some 144ha of greenfield land. Even as it stands, the central highway running through the facility is around 2km long: “All the new employees get a new bicycle;  it’s the safest and quickest way to travel through the yard,” says Mr Pulli: however the scale of the facility means the cycles are also sometimes used to get around the large steel halls.

ARCTECH HELSINKI
 
“We’ve seen more than 150 years of shipbuilding here in this yard... and a hundred years of icebreaking vessels,” says Esko Mustamäki of Arctech Helsinki, adding an interesting perspective on development: “The very first vessel was a harbour icebreaker. At the time the shaft power was a huge 290hp - that was the size of machinery available back then.”

Since then, the Arctech has released a stream of these specialised vessels including everything from shallow draft icebreakers for arctic rivers or other shallow waters right up to huge nuclear powered versions. In all, the company is responsible for no less than 60% of all icebreakers in operation today, “more than all the other yards in the world put together” he points out, although it’s also worthwhile adding that the yard also has other strings to its bow and has recently come up with a smaller ‘exploration cruise’ concept.

Certainly the yard is proud of its historical links with innovation - including the original Azipods – so it’s not surprising that people largely ignore its 2014 Russian takeover and prefer to think of it as “mostly” Finnish. Interestingly the asymmetric Baltika, the result of almost 20 years of development with Aker Arctic and memorable for its ability to turn side-on and cut a 50m path through the ice, was assembled in Helsinki from blocks manufactured in Kaliningrad despite original plans to build in Russia.

Not everything can be cooked for so long. Last year’s delivery of Polaris, the world’s first diesel-LNG-powered icebreaker and the biggest Finnish order of this type since 1994 was, says the yard, “challenging”.  But the effort puts Arctech in a good position for the future as there’s a growing call for a complete Arctic HFO ban which may well result in demand for more clean-propulsion vessels.

Arctech Helsinki took on the demanding ‘Polaris’ LNG icebreaker. 

However, markets aren’t static and over the last decade the designs have been morphing away from single-purpose ships and into multipurpose specifications: at present Arctech has four icebreaking standby vessels on order from SCF: it’s not a straightforward series as each has differing requirements so the first, the 3,000 dwt Gennadiy Nevelskoy, is third larger than the later three, while the rest have varying elements such as moonpools and accommodation.

With such a wide variation, it helps to have a large in-house design unit and production chain at the same shipyard as this gives a tight feedback loop between both sides and an early start to the builds. Further, it allows concept and feasibility studies, backed up by close links to Aker Arctic’s testing basin which can assess the loads on both hulls and propellers in various types of ice. However, since Arctech doesn’t have its own steel manufacturing halls, the initial blocks are contracted out “to long term, established partners” in Vyborg and Klaipeda, enabling a modular build up to around 90,000gt.

It’s efficient; even the complex Polaris was completed in just over two years. Two million cubic metres of covered working areas “means we don’t have to stop welding in difficult conditions” explains Mustamäki and a covered dock of 280m by 34m has cranes with a tandem lift capacity of 500 tonnes. Interestingly, at present not one but two of Socomflot’s PSVs are under build in the dock – a first for the yard. At the edge of the facility there are three outfitting quays, while the associated halls can take more than 20 grand blocks.  Further, the four painting halls have controlled ambient conditions as well as systems to minimise the release of VOCs.

Long may it continue. But... will it? It’s a matter for the oil and gas economies to work out and the calculation is specific in each case: neighbouring Russia is more dependent on its energy output than the US. Passing by the open hull of the 229m ARC7 condensate tanker for Dynagas which will operate out of Sabetta without needing an icebreaker escort, it’s possible to see the truly impressive amount of steel backing up its ability to take on the Northern Sea Route, a mirror of Russia’s will to create the Yamal Peninsula project and open up the area for year-round business.

As Mr Mustamäki notes that a good proportion of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves plus minerals such as gold, nickel and platinum is lying under the arctic ice. Extraction conditions are “not easy” he says, with operations challenged by everything from calving ice to polar bears - so specialised ships – and equally specialised builders – will likely retain an important role.

RAUMA

Once known for its ferries, Rauma is another yard that looked like going under when STX lost its grip on the market.

It was close: Håkan Enlund tells how on the last day of June 2014, the production manager threw his hard hat in the bin, turned off the lights and locked the door. “On the first day of July, he unlocked the office, turned on the lights... and put on a brand new hard hat,” courtesy of a €18.2m cash offer for the yard and its facilities from none other than the city who couldn’t let the business go.

"It’s in the DNA” says Enlund: “We have three generations here... people who’ve had both grandfathers working in the yard.”

The first big project for Rauma Marine Constructions had an exotic flavour: main contractor Adamares needed a recreational platform for a United Arab Emirates resort. This two-deck affair had a surface area of over 9,000m2 and included swimming pools, beach and 32 air-conditioned cabanas.

Despite all this it still came down to the kind of modular build familiar to shipbuilders: in fact, the 3,000 tonne construction “has everything in it that you’d expect on a ship, apart from the engines and propellers” says Enlund, adding that the biggest challenge was the bare 11-month deadline.

Although this artificial beach was delivered into temperatures of +40C, it was delivered from the yard, where the thermometer dropped below -20C. Interestingly, he says: “The real cold isn’t bad for us: when the sea is frozen the air is quite dry. The only issue at those temperatures is that we can’t do heavy lifts with the big, 150 tonne cranes, as there’s a chance of brittle fractures in the wire – but we can still carry on with other work.” He adds: “What we really dislike is temperatures around zero: it’s wet, things melt and refreeze. And the humidity disturbs any outdoor welding.”

However, a recent significant moment for RMC signalling a return to its roots has been the winning of an EUR 68m contract to build a 158m long ropax vessel for Danish ferry operator Mols-Linien, delivering it into service in September 2018. The yard will handle everything, starting construction in its 260m by 85m dry dock shortly – the facility being big enough to hold really large builds, even two at a time. “These vessels used to be our bread and butter,” says Enlund. “This contract shows they will be again.”

Further, RMC has just signed a Letter of Intent for the development of the Finnish Navy's 'Squadron 2020' ice-going combat ship programme.  These are around 100m in length, the biggest vessels in the Finnish Navy. It’s a lucky break for Rauma, but not perhaps entirely unexpected: after all, theirs is the only large enough yard left that’s still under domestic ownership.

It all helps. As Enlund says “Rauma is back”.

Rauma Marine Construction is back with an orderbook that includes both commercial ro-pax and Navy vessels. Photo: RMC

TURKU REPAIR YARD

The last mention should go to the Turku Repair Yard, owned by BLRT Grupp, which has seen a number of ‘significant’ vessels pass through.

This was where the Viking Grace landed for its first annual docking and it’s also recently given the oldest and smallest of Finland’s icebreakers a 15 year life extension. Back in 1952 Voima, then a state of the art vessel, was one of the first to put Finland’s specialist yards on the map. The yard also has some fairly sophisticated cleaning and renovation abilities, handing the grand 1902-built, full-rigged Suomen Joutsen when it came in last year (pictured below).

By contrast, the facility may well soon benefit from the newest IMO regulations: the ballast water convention and the 0.5% global sulphur cap will probably push a number of refits and it should be mentioned the yard can cope with an influx: at 265m by a broad 70m across it has one of the largest dry docks of its kind in Northern Europe. Further, it also has a 101m by 21.6m floating dock with a capacity of 4,000 tonnes and a berth of 184m.

The fact it’s been around a while helps with peaks in the schedule:  its workforce of 100, many of which have worked for the company for years can be expanded an additional 250 to 300 employees from local partners.

All the Finnish yards have what you might call a colourful history: it looks like they’ll have an equally colourful future ahead.

Turku Repair Yard undertook maintenance on the fully rigged ‘Suomen Joutsen’ museum ship