We talk about freedom of the seas – however, there can be no doubt that protectionism, in varying forms, has its hold on the maritime industry.
At last year’s Marintec Exhibition, I met Jingnan Shipyard’s director of science and technology Hu Keyi, a technology enthusiast overseeing a multitude of projects that are breaking new ground at China’s oldest shipyard. This is reflected in the yard’s investment in digitalisation and automation to streamline processes and an orderbook spanning an LNG-fuelled container vessel, a VLGC and even an ice breaker.
The yard however is not immune from wider global developments. Progress on a new ethane carrier to import stocks from the United States to meet the needs of Chinese power plants has been suspended due to the trade war between the United States and China.
These economic difficulties come against the backdrop of a major maritime study that details a rapid rise in shipbuilding patent applications, which the reports authors’ attribute to superpowers looking to protect and commercially exploit new innovations in technology.
“Since 2010, China and Korea have dominated industrial protection activity in the field of shipbuilding”
The International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL), located in Portugal, is the lead partner in the ‘KETmaritime’ project, funded by the Interreg Atlantic Area Program, via the European Regional Development Fund.
The project is being delivered by a consortium of seven partners across Europe in an effort to identify ‘Key Enabling Technologies’ to support the future needs and demands of the Atlantic maritime industry.
Project coordinator Ana Vila said the project involves five detailed reports, the first of which explores ‘Advanced Manufacturing for Shipbuilding Applications’. The in-depth study examines current use and future potential of ‘new-age’ technology – including 3D-scanning, 3D-printing, robotics, virtual and augmented reality. Further analysis of international classification patents illustrates the scale of innovation and new technology entering the global shipbuilding sector.
Ms Vila said the analysis also demonstrates increased ‘industrial protection’ activity particularly across the Far East, with China and Korea accumulating more than 80% of the production patents alone over the last decade. Meanwhile, the USA, Japan and Europe lag behind, as they rely more heavily on traditional technology. Data was examined between the periods of 2010 and 2018 involving more than 3,800 patents. Since 2010, China and Korea have dominated industrial protection activity in the field of shipbuilding. The most prominent applicants were Korean shipbuilders: Daewoo, Samsung, and Hyundai. These three organisations gathered more than 15% of the total patent production alone.
To conclude that the maritime world is retreating behind national lines is wide of the mark. In China, among many reported deals, Lloyd’s Register, Dalian Shipbuilding Industry and Man Energy Solutions have unveiled a concept design for an ammonia-fuelled 23,000 TEU Ultra Large Container Ship. Elsewhere, DNV GL’s group technology and research director Pierre Sames told me DNV GL set up its AI research centre in Shanghai last year in part to marry China’s talent for implementation with Europe’s ability to create.
Perhaps that partnership, based on those values – rather than narrow national interest – is a more accurate signpost for the future direction of innovation in our industry.