Turku is ideally positioned for the maritime industry. Located at the mouth of the Baltic Sea, the city is surrounded by an archipelago of some 20 000 islands and skerries. Over the last 300 years it has spawned a booming maritime ecosystem.
The behemoth in residence is shipbuilder Meyer Turku, with 1 800 employees and a shipyard that dwarfs its surroundings. It is a buzzing village of gigantic cranes, the hum of welding and people in safety jackets biking around in haste. Right now, its backdrop is dominated by the body of a massive cruise liner under construction.
Walk the yard and it is easy to believe Meyer Turku has made its name building some of the world’s largest cruise ships, car-passenger ferries and special vessels. But it has also made inroads in complex, innovative and environmentally friendly construction techniques, including the first diesel-electric cruise ship and the first cruise ship to be fitted solely with outside cabins.
“We have built modern cruise ships since the 1970s and every ship series we have launched has introduced new features,” explains Kari Sillanpää, head of R&D at Meyer Turku.
One Sea to unite us all
While now owned by German Meyer Family, the history of Meyer Turku dates back to the 1730s. These days shipbuilding is quite a different kettle of fish. Sillanpää talks about the importance of simulations, virtual doubles of its ships and the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) into its processes.
Then there is the industry’s ultimate goal: autonomous, self-navigating ships. Those worried about boarding a Caribbean cruise without a crew can rest assured, this is not what Meyer has in mind.
“From our perspective, an autonomous ship doesn’t mean a crewless ship, but one that can be operated in a smarter and safer way,” Sillanpää stresses. “It is easier for the crew to operate a ship when they receive constant support from different systems and data on, for example, the surroundings of the ship.”
Meyer Turku is helping in the development of these new systems to bring them together in future ships. The company is also one of the initiators of the ‘One Sea’ ecosystem, a private-public Finnish collaboration aimed at operating autonomous maritime traffic in the Baltic Sea by 2025.
The One Sea ecosystem combines Finnish expertise in the form of research projects, technological development and policy advocacy. A key initiative is a test area called ‘Jaakko’s Sea’, located near the Turku shore. It is the world’s first open test area for trialling everything from sensor systems to entire autonomous ships in real-world conditions. The area has already raised international interest and the first pilots are expected to start here in spring 2018.
Shipping without a crew
Where self-navigating ships are expected to make their greatest impact is in cargo shipping. In February, technology developed in Turku was used to power the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel: a tug operating in Copenhagen.
Key to this milestone is engineering giant Rolls-Royce. Or, more precisely, the company’s Finnish research and development centre for remote controlled and autonomous ships. It was launched in Turku to bolster projects like this in early 2017.
“A global firm has to look at a region’s competitiveness as a whole and what competencies you can find nearby,” says Esa Jokioinen, vice president sales and marketing, Ship Intelligence at Rolls-Royce. “In Finland, we have two significant factors: a robust ICT cluster and a very strong marine cluster particularly in the Turku region. So many pieces fit together [for our move].”
Rolls-Royce’s goals for the new R&D centre are ambitious. Having also joined the One Sea ecosystem, it wants nothing less than global leadership in ship automation systems and it already has many projects cooking.
“From a technical perspective, the autonomous side already works well in our simulators. But there are internal criteria we must meet before we integrate it into a moving ship,” Jokioinen says. “The question isn’t who will create the first autonomous ship, but who can operate it one million times in a row without issue.”
But Jokioinen is confident this could become a reality faster than many believe. He expects the first commercial autonomous ships to break the waves by the end of 2020 and for it to be equipped with technology built in Turku.
Local innovation in the sector doesn’t stop at building and operating ships. A major issue for the industry today comes at the end of the lifecycle: ship dismantling. Most big vessels are taken apart in Asia, where conditions often fail to meet EU standards.
Still, no EU-state currently offers a permanent dismantling site for large ships. And this is where a new Turku-based ‘ship recycling’ consortium has ideas. It plans to create Europe’s first sustainable ocean liner dismantling and recycling industry in Finland.
At the core of the consortium is Turku Repair Yard (TRY), the largest dry dock in Northern Europe.
It acts as the platform for ship recycling, while its consortium-partners Meriaura, Hans Lang and Delete Finland acquire the vessels for demolition, handle the extraction of liquid waste and do the mechanical dismantling respectively. The consortium’s first pilot project was executed in October on a mid-sized vessel.
“Ultimately, we want to focus on larger ships, but the project was designed to teach us about our strengths and weaknesses,” says Oskari Kangas, project manager at TRY. “Now we understand how existing dismantling techniques should be developed forward. That is the next step.”
The consortium is already eyeing new vessels the size of ocean liners for a second pilot in 2018. The companies hope the project will eventually provide valuable information to the entire maritime industry and it will partner with Finnish universities to collaborate on this data.
“[Shipbuilders] are interested to see what they can learn from our project and apply it when designing ships in the future,” Kangas says. “It will take up to three years of product development before we have a real commercial operation, but as demand for ship recycling is expected grow from 2020 onwards when current ships get older, the timing is good.”
For Turku, the prize is its ability to manage a ship’s entire life cycle. It is the culmination of centuries of shipbuilding in the city and the hope is it lays a foundation for the next 300 years as well.