‘I am worried about China,’ said Pieter van Oord, CEO of Van Oord, at the opening summit of maritime trade fair Europort on 5 November. Focus of the summit was the European maritime industry’s competitiveness and innovative strength, especially in regard to China.

Journalist, TV-programmer and presenter Geert Maarse hosted the opening ceremony and introduced the shipping panel: Antonio Bordils, CEO of Boluda Towage, Mikki Koskinen, Managing Director of ESL Shipping (shortsea), Pieter Van Oord, CEO of dredging and offshore wind contractor Van Oord, and Annika Hult, Managing Director of ferry operator Stena Line.

Balancing the Short and Long Term to Innovate

The ship owners had to give their opinions about a number of statements. The first one ‘Ship owners are open to innovation if it leads to increased profitability’ was met by agreement from both Van Oord and Hult.

Bordils said he did have a problem with the industry ‘thinking in price only’ for which the customer ultimately pays. Koskinen added that he feels ‘profitability is the outcome, not necessarily the goal of innovation. Innovation can make ships safer and more efficient, which means they become more profitable as well.’

Van Oord stressed, however, that it is nog an either/or. ‘A company can only survive when it is profitable, but we should also have other goals, such as the energy transition, which is to be completed in thirty years’ time, basically in a single generation.’ This will require a huge effort from the industry and cannot be completed without innovation.

Some innovations are already there, ready to be implemented

Hult added she thinks it is about balancing the long and short term: ‘we must innovate by allocating funds, those funds are only available if a business is profitable.’ According to Koskinen, the industry is ‘innovating, we are just not focused on the short term.’

Yet, not all innovations are difficult or need to take a lot of time, stated Bordils. Some are already there, ready to be implemented. As an example, he mentioned shorepower connections for tugboats. ‘A simple solution, but in many ports, it is not yet available.’

A New Ship Represents the Next 25 Years

‘For us, innovation is the next generation vessel and new fuel technology,’ said Van Oord. ‘When me make a decision to invest in a new ship, this counts for a period of the next 25 years. It’s all about our views on the long term. We base those investment decisions on what we think the world will look like. There is always a risk in that, because how good are we at predicting the future? Not very good.’

Invest in Competitiveness

All panel members could not disagree that China is becoming an ever larger supplier for the maritime industry. On the question whether the European maritime industry should be supported to prevent loss of knowledge, Koskinen points out that in his opinion some sixty per cent of the systems and knowledge still comes from Europe. Bordils, on the other hand, sees more in ‘local solutions for local problems’, but also cannot deny China’s growing dominance.

When Maarse asked whether ship owners should then take responsibility for the European maritime industry, Hult replied she thinks this should be turned around. ‘You have to give ship owners a reason for wanting to make use of the European network.’ When it comes to Stena Line, she admitted her company also builds new ships in China. She said: ‘It is not one or the other. Yes, we build in China, but we also have a lot of European subcontractors. The European industry should invest in its own competitiveness.’

You have to give ship owners a reason for wanting to make use of the European network

China Lacks Level Playing Field

Van Oord added that when it comes to China, you cannot speak of a level playing field, so it is nearly impossible to compete with them. As opposed to the Netherlands, ‘China actively supports its industry in ways that make a level playing field impossible.’ A statement that is met with applause from the audience in the room. ‘We see a trend in China. First they stole technology from the Netherlands, now we have to sign contracts stating we will not compete with them in Asian countries. So yes, I am worried about China.’

First they stole technology from the Netherlands, now we have to sign contracts stating we will not compete with them in Asian countries

So, is there a way to keep the knowledge in Europe? Hult: ‘We have to do it together. Use the available potential by keeping an open mind. We should be open to new ideas and build on the people we have, utilise the potential we have. Really listen to the ideas that are out there.’ Something Koskinen agreed with.

Look at Disruptive Technology

Maarse went on to ask the panel members whether they think that the maritime industry, as quite a traditional, conservative industry, is ahead or behind on other sectors when it comes to other sectors.

While Van Oord stated the industry is ‘keeping pace’ in his opinion, Hult said the industry could do more. ‘We should look at disruptive technology and take inspiration from our ideas about the future. How can we use this technology to stay competitive in the future?’ So she feels maritime industry is a little behind when compares to other industries. ‘We should also look to other businesses to add a new perspective to our own.’

Koskinen said maritime industry is not behind, but that it ‘operates on a different timetable.’ Whereas phone manufacturers can present a new model every ten months, or car manufacturers a new model every three years, a ship lasts for 25 years. So it is only natural, innovation works at a different pace.

We should also look to other businesses to add a new perspective to our own

First Onshore Support Centre

Van Oord concluded this session by giving an example of digitisation at Van Oord. ‘We recently opened our first onshore support centre, which can be seen as a first step towards autonomous sailing.’ He feels shipping needs to deal with the same challenges as those for autonomous driving, but he thinks it will come about much sooner than the thirty to forty years some have predicted. ‘I am pretty sure some of the offshore functions can already be performed onshore in an office with higher quality.’

Some of the offshore functions can already be performed onshore in an office with higher quality

Creativity to Tackle Rising Sea Level

Following a keynote speech by Rotterdam-based artist and visionary, Daan Roosegaarde, the panel members were called back on stage to respond to some of Roosegaarde’s innovative projects. His Waterlight project, in which lights over city squares give people the idea of being underwater, was linked to the global problem of the rising sea level. Van Oord said that even though this could be construed as an opportunity for his company in terms of the company’s expertise in this area, he is definitely ‘not a fan’ of this development. ‘We need creativity to tackle this issue.’

The sea level rising is also an opportunity for Van Oord as a company

An example of what Van Oord has been doing in this field is the Zandmotor (sand engine), an artificial sand structure or so-called “DeltaDuin” (Delta Dune). They built this together with Rijkswaterstaat off the coast of the Netherlands at Ter Heijde. Under the influence of waves, wind and currents along the coast, the sandbank changes. Its sand spreads further along the coast over the years. It is an experiment in the context of dynamic coastal management with the aim of using natural processes to keep beaches and dunes at a safe width.

In terms of innovation and reducing emissions at Stena Line, Hult pointed to the use of new bulb forms, propellers and materials as well as the Artificial Intelligence the company now uses to assist captains in ship operations, which helps them save fuel.

Saving Fuel with Kites

In response to Roosegaarde’s project with land-based kites that reel themselves in to float up again and thereby generate power (originally an idea of Wubbo Ockels), Bordils said ‘Tugs with kites, why not? We are sailors after all. It will probably save at least some liters of gas oil.’

Polluter Has to Pay

Koskinen linked Roosegaarde’s space waste lab, which researches ways to clean up the waste from satellites floating in space, to the need of taking responsibility for the messes mankind makes, including those caused by shipping. ‘We should take responsibility for clean oceans and clean air. We should and could all do more. The polluter has to pay in the end.’

Europort takes place until 8 November at Ahoy Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Picture: The ship owners panel with (from left to right) Pieter van Oord, Annika Hult, Antonio Bordils, Mikki Koskinen and presenter Geert Maarse.