Ocean Infinity project highlights VARD’s strength as a fully integrated shipbuilder

VP Sales and Marketing Christian Utvik gives an inside look at a unique case and how VARD’s long experience as a quality shipbuilder with a ‘seamless’ value chain is defining its approach.

01. July 2021

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We’re right now building the first in a series of eight highly advanced, 78-metre robotic vessels for maritime robotics pioneer Ocean Infinity. They are intended to be world’s most environmentally responsible oceangoing offshore vessels and the largest in the owner’s nascent green fleet (see separate client story). It’s a very exciting project that addresses the carbon crisis head on, with a focus on fuel efficiency, low emissions and optimal performance, with the mission to make the maritime industry greener, cleaner and more efficient.

Decarbonisation vision

The ships will also be made ready for future environmentally responsible fuels and renewable energy sources. On delivery they will accommodate a lean crew of 14 and use conventional fuels but are designed to evolve through various stages of hybridization to ensure they remain at the forefront of low-emission performance to minimise impact on the environment. Lean crewing from the outset also centres on smart ways to optimize efficiency, mirroring the wider evolution of technology and the Internet of Things (IoT). The ultimate goal is the ships will be capable of being remotely controlled from shore, as well as being zero carbon emission, powered by ammonia with fuel cells and batteries.

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This is a very exciting project that addresses the carbon crisis head on, with a focus on fuel efficiency, low emissions and optimal performance.

– Christian Utvik, VP Sales and Marketing

High-end investment

Our dialogue first centred on three larger ships but still with a very adventurous concept. Over time they morphed into the eight smaller vessels we’re now building. Because of their planned long lifespan, Ocean Infinity was prepared to invest more in each vessel and the design was worked out through many iterations by Vard Design.

‘Seamless’ strength

We emphasized from the start it’s much more efficient to execute this kind of project as an integrated shipbuilder with strong ownership and a lot of in-house know-how. In a typical fragmented shipbuilding process, many separate companies provide input from design to yard and technical suppliers. We believe it’s beneficial to be able to supply and engineer the solutions within the same VARD family. For example, Vard Electro is equipping the Ocean Infinity ships with advanced marine electronics from its SeaQ product range, while Vard Accommodation is providing the efficient accommodation solution.

Ocean Infinity saw the benefit of our integrated approach, but because we want to incorporate the latest innovations as they become available, 50% of the Makers List for the ships was not confirmed by the time we cut the first steel. We’re comfortable with this and can accommodate it thanks to the ability of our different departments to work together seamlessly.

Future proof design

78-metre robotic vessels designed to evolve through various stages of hybridization.

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True group effort

The ships draw on our global footprint of talent. Construction of the marine scope is taking place at our Vard Vung Tau shipyard in Vietnam, where they’re really excited to demonstrate their competence. The smart IP stuff is being developed in Norway and all installation and testing will be done in Norway as well. The design gets better because everyone can lean on each other.

Another liability of the fragmented approach is that you have to reinvent the wheel for every new ship as the chain of suppliers change. There’s also a risk that independent designers might get carried away on the drawing board. We’re forward-leaning, but also conservative enough to keep our feet on firm regulatory ground in terms of Class, Flag and IMO requirements. Many new technology companies also make bold promises about what’s possible but lack the required integration skills. There’s a big difference between being excited about being carbon neutral and remote operations and having the experience to make everything function together successfully. We know what will work in real life, and the security the owner gets is our ability to do this through our complete value chain.

Tailored for the customer

The vessels are designed with two moonpools and are prepared for alternative fuels

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‘Prepared for everything’

At heart, we’re a project-driven company in respect to R&D. Choosing just one path might result in a miss, so we’re willing to invest ourselves as well. For example, if you look at different strategies for alternative fuels, some like Ocean Infinity are focusing on ammonia, while in Norway the trend is for hydrogen. As a shipbuilder we need to be prepared for everything.

Superior agility

Our willingness to ‘stand in uncertainty’ is a great fit with Ocean Infinity’s bold strategy and also reflects our ability to adapt rapidly to what the market wants. Being flexible is in our DNA. At the end of the offshore boom we successfully diversified into value-added cruise ships, ferries and fishing vessels. We’ve reframed our strategy further to focus on sustainable ships and sustainable products. Ocean Infinity stands out by being extremely progressive, but there’s growing industry interest in these kinds of highly automated vessel and the thinking behind them.

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Step-by-step development

Core design challenges we’ve faced include getting to grips with cutting-edge technology areas and the developing regulations for robotic ships and fuels like ammonia. These unknowns would be very difficult to manage without the kind of centralized design we offer that’s fully embedded in the building process.

With such cutting edge technology, and developing external factors means we’re in just about daily contact with the owner regarding how to manage those risks and make progress as fast as we can. This constant back and forth is essential to maintain delivery times. We know the end result will be quite different to our starting point, and it would’ve been of no use to Ocean Infinity to have a contract set in stone.

Ahead of the game

We invited both Class – we’re working with DNV GL on these vessels – and Flag into very early discussions on remote operations and alternative fuels. New rules for ammonia are due to come out on 1 July 2021, but at the beginning we couldn’t wait and Ocean Infinity was willing to go as far as practicable in advance. Our close contacts with various maritime clusters have also been invaluable in developing systems that are still in development. We’re working closely with all parties to ensure they meet the rules. For example, preparations for fuel cells are already quite advanced and the last vessel in the series will likely be equipped with them.

Long-term partnership

Deliveries are quite spread out, with the first ship set for handover in mid-2022 – exactly when depends on how much systems testing will be required – and the last in late 2023. We’re also extending our offering into the ships’ operational life to ensure the end product is exactly what Ocean Infinity wants – future-proof in a changing environment, securing long-term competitiveness and mitigating the carbon risk. We can do appropriate modifications at any of our yards in Norway, Romania, Vietnam or Brazil – wherever’s closest. That kind of global yard presence is unique in itself, and the engineering is the same.

‘Proof point’

In summary, as a uniquely innovative project demanding greater flexibility than more straightforward vessels, it is a huge proof point for VARD’s integrated business model and what we can achieve despite an undefined scope. Working with Ocean Infinity has been exhilarating, and information flow has been very fast. They also knew they wanted a shipbuilder with a proper reputation. With VARD, quality is built in and every client gets VARD’s full commitment regardless of project scale.