Smarter engines for a smarter future

Modular design of engines like the Wartsila 31 will make further digitalisation and hybridisation easier Modular design of engines like the Wartsila 31 will make further digitalisation and hybridisation easier

Four-stroke engines have a pivotal role to play in Wärtsilä’s vision of a ‘smart marine ecosystem’, Juha Kytölä, director of power supply, tells The Motorship.

With the recent focus from Wärtsilä on smart systems it is easy to overlook the more traditional machinery elements of the Finnish group’s business. But engines remain an important part of the group’s portfolio and will be an important element of the ‘smart marine ecosystem’ that Wärtsilä envisions.

“Modern engines are self-diagnostic, self-tuning and increasingly capable of running on multiple fuels,” explains Juha Kytölä, director of power supply, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions. “All these rely on the fact that connectivity is an increasingly important part of what we do.”

For the smart marine ecosystem to emerge – with ships operating to maximum efficiency as well as communicating with ports to reduce waiting times - you need smart marine engines.

“In order to make shipping more efficient, there will be an increasing dependence on intelligent systems,” says Kytölä. “Connectivity becomes key. And not only connectivity between systems on a ship, but also between ships and harbours.”

To help make machines smarter, an internal reorganisation has brought the four-stroke business within Wärtsilä closer to the company’s hybridisation and digitalisation expertise, Kytölä reports. The importance of this proximity is evident in the new Wärtsilä HY propulsion concept, under which the company is marketing integrated propulsion packages that combine battery packs of different sizes with engines.

The battery element means that the HY systems are capable of harnessing power from non-traditional inputs – for example renewable wind and solar power – with the flow of energy directed by a ‘smart’ power management system that monitors power demand across the ship system and decides whether energy needs to be stored in or drawn from the batteries.

This increasing focus on smart technologies means that other capabilities are being developed within the company, says Kytölä. “We are developing laboratories where, for the first time, we can test and validate the efficiency of modern and future arrangements. Aside from developing the efficiency of our engines we are also focused on developing more hybrid and ‘intelligent’ propulsion concepts.”

Kytölä believes that another important precursor to a smart, efficient marine industry is a level of standardisation that is lacking in the sector today.

“The marine industry has a long way to in terms of standardising interfaces and building procedures,” he says. “There is no standard way that components or equipment communicate or connect with each other. A common approach would give huge benefits and this is the world towards which we are driving.”


One notable step towards standardisation is a modular approach to engine design. One benefit of this approach is that it enables easier introduction of new features required for smarter operations. This idea influenced the design of the recently launched Wärtsilä 31 engine, which was initially revealed at the Norshipping exhibition in 2015.

The Wärtsilä 31 engine is claimed to be the most efficient engine on the market – a statement it backs up with a Guinness World Record. It is also very versatile, notes Kytölä. “We have had good success in several different segments, securing contracts for cruise, ro-pax, ro-ro, offshore, fishing and icebreakers. We have performed several installations already and the first of those are already in operation.”

While investment in the future of Wärtsilä’s engine portfolio develops apace, the market for four-stroke marine plant continues to evolve. In recent years the cruise sector has surged while offshore activity has declined. Kytölä notes potential changes in both those trends, with signs that sentiment is cooling on cruise ships – although yards remain fully booked well into the next decade – and the first hints of future newbuild activity in the offshore sector.

The ro-ro ferry sector is also heating up, says Kytölä. Unlike the cruise market where the growth is being driven by new capacity, ro-ro operators are under “huge pressure” to renew aging vessels in order to meet environmental requirements.

“The average of vessels in this sector has been rather high and this is an opportunity to replace old propulsion systems with some very modern, efficient concepts,” Kytölä explains.

These growing sectors could be among the first to benefit from the new smarter engines that Wärtsilä believes will power ships in the smart marine ecosystem of the future.


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