Compared to their land equivalents, marine engines have to shoulder a much heavier burden. With highly capricious and volatile weather that can vary from Arctic cold to equatorial heat, the intense mechanical stress can often lead to breakdowns and engine failures for poorly maintained machinery. It's one of the reasons why successful companies stress the importance of good engine health: because a proactive approach to monitoring a vessel's vital equipment results in improved risk control, as well as maximising their ships' ROI.
With the decline of traditional manual inspection, intelligent analysis based upon the accurate and detailed information that modern technology can provide is ascendant. When correctly executed, condition monitoring best practice ensures that operators are able minimise downtime, mitigate costs, and focus on the job at hand. And whether that's containers, breakbulk, or tankers carrying oil or gas, meeting and exceeding customer expectations is always priority number one.
Wärtsilä has been one of the industry's most outspoken proponents of proactive condition monitoring in recent years. Magnus Miemois, its director of field services, has been vocal in advocating that, "For shipowners, uptime is the most crucial factor affecting quality and profitability." It's a view we would unequivocally echo.
The issue of the ingress of Al+Si compounds, commonly known as catalytic (cat) fines, is already a subject that the former senior surveyor to the classification society the American Bureau of Shipping and founder of the bunker fuels analysis firm Viswa Lab, recently called "the single most important reason for damage to machinery." It's a subject that Gard – the largest Protection & Indemnity insurer in the International Group – has been warning about in their circulars for a number of years, as have many others in the industry. In large part this is due to the concern that the replacement of one liner alone can cost up to $65,000 for parts; and this number can quickly escalate to $1m+ for a vessel with multiple cylinders, when the materials, labour and the accompanying impairments for downtime and repair are also taken into consideration.
As part of its on-going remit to improve industry standards, early this year a technical committee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) proposed changes to the international standards for marine fuels. The current standard, ISO 8217, dates back to 2012 and is considered by many to be in need of an update as it perhaps doesn't best reflect the challenges of today's market, namely, compliance with environmental regulations, new fuels entering the market, and continuing fuel quality issues.
However, along with a number of industry commentators, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) and INTERTANKO have expressed reservations regarding some of the proposed revisions, warning that a number of the changes may be unfavourable to ship owners and operators. This is of particular note, because as Gerard Rohaan, CEO at VPS, recently said, "ISO 8217 was introduced to govern fuel quality with an implied need to ensure the seaworthiness of the ship."
One of the proposed changes, to Clause 8, would mean that a recipient couldn't consider a bunker out of specification "unless the test result exceeds the specification limit value by more than the 95% confidence limit." According to VPS's calculations, this would mean that the limit for the concentration of cat fines would be permitted to rise to 72 ppm from 60 ppm. This is despite many engine manufacturers, including MAN and Wärtsilä, specifying that they recommend fuel with a concentration of no more than 15 ppm cat fines should be used in their engines.
Such a change would therefore lead to a much lengthier fuel management processes, and dangerously multiply the potential for impaired propulsion resulting from damaged caused by contaminants in the fuel. As the exact quality of the bunker fuel being brought on board can be difficult to predict, this proposed change has the potential to seriously increase vessel downtime, as well as open the operator up to an increased risk of having significantly less grounds on which to question the quality of the fuel supplied by the bunker supplier.
The significant expense associated with damage caused by cat fines is one of the main reasons why it's currently such a hot topic with marine insurers. More and more frequently they're telling us that if there are tools available to avoid such issues, there is an increasing expectation that operators will need to show evidence of due diligence detecting and avoiding such damage to make a successful claim.
The Parker Cat Fines Test Kit is one such piece of equipment. Using a simple pre-mixed chemical bottle test that identifies the existence of cat fines in a representative sample of fuel oil, engineers are given the ability to detect the presence of abrasive components in the fuel oil before it enters the system – either when a new bunker is taken on board, or via cat fines that may have collected in the settling tank and are stirred up during bad weather.
Concerns about the potentially outsize effect that such small particles can have was recently recognised by Norbulk. After performing a competitive evaluation of the available market options in early 2016, the leading vessel management firm chose to apply 70 Parker Cat Fines Test Kits across its fleet of vessels. Based upon stringent testing, Norbulk found it to be the simplest and most reliable way for engineers to rapidly detect cat fines in their fuel oil samples, and for their crew to take timely action to minimise the chance of infrastructure failure and avoid the associated costs and inconveniences of damage.
Another company that has placed an emphasis on condition monitoring tools as its first line of defence for critical equipment and machinery is Doosan. The industry leading South Korean firm installed 36 Parker LinerSCAN online monitoring systems on its new build vessels in 2015. The LinerSCAN system uses magnetometry to quantify the iron in used cylinder oil and helps to pinpoint the ingress of cat fines that can harm the cylinder liner. Such system analysis not only helps extend operational life, it also helps prevents unanticipated downtime, and repair bills from otherwise unseen accelerated wear.
Quantifying the business case for timely maintenance or asset renewal is never straightforward. De-risking your infrastructure by identifying problems early and using real-time vessel data can be transformative. Time spent focusing on ways to maximise vessel uptime will reduce the operational inefficiencies that add cost to carriers, from longer stays at ports, to cylinder replacements, to handling customer complaints. Reducing logistical friction in this way is often one of the most potent symbols of success. By taking responsibility for the little details and holding themselves accountable to a high standard, successful operators understand that knowledge is power. And without power there's no propulsion.