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Procurement in action: Rolls-Royce's autonomous ships


At the 2016 Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam, global engineering firm Rolls-Royce announced its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) initiative would make captain-less shipping a reality.

“This is happening. It’s not if – it’s when,” said Rolls-Royce’s vice president of marine innovation Oskar Levander at the time.

Since that announcement, the company has been moving forward with its plans and the procurement team is playing a critical role in bringing this vision to life.

The company, in partnership with towage operator Svitzer, marked an important milestone in the
development of fully autonomous ships by successfully testing a remotely operated tug vessel in
Copenhagen harbour, Denmark in early 2017. From Svitzer’s headquarters, the vessel’s captain
berthed the vessel alongside the quay, undocked it, turned it 360 degrees, and piloted it to Svitzer’s
headquarters, before docking again.

The ship, the Svitzer Hermod, was designed by Robert Allan and built in Turkey at the Sanmar shipyard in 2016. It is equipped with a Rolls-Royce Dynamic Positioning System, the key link to the remote-controlled technology.

The vessel also features a range of sensors, which combine data inputs using advanced softwar to give the remote captain an enhanced understanding of the craft and its surroundings. That information is transmitted to a Remote Operating Centre (ROC) from which the captain controls
the ship.

The company sought input from experienced captains when designing the ROC to ensure the systems and screens needed were located in the optimum positions.

This successful test has paved the way for Rolls-Royce to go further and attempt to launch fully autonomous ships, which the company hopes will revolutionise the industry by reducing the risk of accidents, as well as improving efficiency by using the space once taken up by a vessel’s crew and instead filling it with cargo.


Once we began talking about this vision and we started to publicise our partnerships, there was a snowball effect – suppliers started coming to us with solutions


The initiative has demanded the development of a new team as well as a new supply chain, which has forced some new thinking when it comes to selecting, onboarding and managing suppliers.

The new digital and systems unit sits within the Rolls-Royce marine division and is led by Simon
Cuthbert, SVP of procurement planning and control for digital and systems at Rolls-Royce Marine. The digital and systems team comprises four subgroups: ship intelligence; electrical automation and control; ship design and systems; and concepts and innovations.

“The digital and systems value stream works together with other parts of the marine business to create the concept, design the vessel and its operating systems, and design and manufacture hardware such as engines, propulsion systems, the bridge environment and wider electrical systems,” he says.

“We also design and manufacture the top-deck equipment necessary for the intended operating tasks.

“Throughout this process, the ship intelligence team has been working to understand the types of technologies needed to ensure vessels have the right situational awareness capabilities,” he explains.

Welcome aboard

The team has worked closely with Rolls-Royce’s technology team at every stage to better understand and develop the criteria and specification of goods and services it has needed to source. As far as has been possible and practical, the supply chain has been built to mirror that of a typical commercial vessel. The team took this approach because they already had knowledge and experience of suppliers in this marketplace. However, for some of the new technologies needed the team has had to look beyond its normal horizons.

“We have to source a combination of hardware and software, which together enables a vessel to understand the environment around it and then use that information to decide how to manoeuvre
autonomously,” says Cuthbert.

The hardware sourced has tended to be an evolution of existing marine technology – sensors thermal imaging equipment, sonar and radar – and, as such, the team has been able to use the more
traditional supply chain.

But the software, which consists of automation, control and simulation modelling; situational
awareness technology; big data tools, which use machine-learning algorithms and predictive analytics; and graphical user interfaces marked new territory for the team and so the supply chain became a little more complex.

“[It is like] looking for something you can’t be sure even exists yet,” says Cuthbert.

Many of the suppliers needed were small and often niche technology providers, many of which were hard to find. When these suppliers were found, they were not accustomed to supplying a firm such as Rolls-Royce. One of the ways the team scouted these suppliers was to tap into the contacts of Rolls-Royce’s technology team, as well as a number of universities the firm has alliances with. It was then a case of following these leads.


“Most of the time this came to nothing,” explains Cuthbert. “But, every once in a while, we found something that would turn out to be critical.”

What also helped was when word started to spread about the project.

“Once we began talking about this vision and we started to publicise our partnerships, there was a snowball effect,” he says.

“When hardware and software suppliers heard about what we are doing, they started coming to us
with solutions.”


These suppliers are not used to the way we operate as a business and so it has required a different and more agile type of thinking from us

Even with suppliers coming to them, the team has had to take risks and undertake tasks they
perhaps would not do in any other sourcing exercise.

“Single sourcing has, in many cases, been unavoidable because we are operating at the cutting edge of capabilities,” says Cuthbert.

The team has also had to be a little more flexible.

“These suppliers are not used to the way we operate as a business and so it has required a different and more agile type of thinking from us.”

Typical supplier onboarding processes and supplier risk assessments have had to be carried out, as well as stringent financial health checks.

“We have had to understand that while some of the traditional negotiated terms such as payment
conditions, warranties an liabilities are important, it is intellectual property (IP) rights, clear deliverable milestones and software control that are critical and therefore integral to a successful partnership.”


Beyond this, the team has also had to carefully consider both cybersecurity risks as well as health and safety. A number of high-profile incidents have prompted a serious debate about the safety of driverless cars and that is no different when it comes to ships.

When it comes to cybersecurity, Cuthbert explains, the team has drawn upon its experience in the
aerospace industry, which has been working with such technology for many years.

“We have worked extremely closely with our corporate and industry experts to ensure the safe transmission, collection and storage of the data we are generating,” he says.

Meanwhile, when it comes to safety, the team has ensured it is working closely and communicating
with suppliers while learning lessons from other industries.

“The automotive and marine industry face similar challenges,” says Cuthbert.

“For our autonomous technology to work, the vessel must faultlessly understand, in real time, where it is in time and space and identify every object around it – whether that be a wave, a rock or another vessel. More importantly, it needs to know how to avoid them,” he adds.

“Since there are a number of partners involved in the identification, predictive tracking and vessel-route steering – all of whom are relying on software systems to perform these tasks – we must consider the risks and who in the supply chain will be liable for the consequences for any fault. If the vessel fails to avoid an object is it the fault of the object-detection provider or the vessel-steering
software?” he says.

As Cuthbert explains, small software houses and startups have the expertise and drive to develop the technology needed to make this concept a reality, but one of the lessons his team has learned is that fewer suppliers are willing to accept the risk inherent in their innovations.

“These financially limited, small suppliers wouldn’t be able to afford a liability claim from a major
shipping operator in the event of an accident,” he says.

“They would go out of business, and this would mean that we would no longer have access to the technology. But, at the same time, is it right that suppliers can operate without consequences of failure?”

Working in collaboration with suppliers, the team has implemented an agreed mutual ownership of liability. This has also opened up collaboration across the supply chain.

The situational awareness kit, which allows a vessel to understand its surroundings, uses multiple
sensors and various different technologies. Combining the various signals into one feed and trying to handle the data output required a number of different suppliers to contribute knowledge in an open environment. By assuring IP rights, each party contributed willingly to this system. This, in turn, has helped to ensure the integrity of the program, reducing the risk of the technology failing.

“The remote-controlled vessel was the first step on our journey and we are excited about the
developments that we will be showcasing in the coming months and years. We believe these have the potential to transform the marine industry,” says Cuthbert.

Although Rolls-Royce Marine will face challenges along the way, if the company continues to work closely with the supply base, while communicating openly and honestly with vendors, it will only be a matter of time before captainless essels cross the world’s seas.


Image: © Rolls-Royce


First featured in PLQ Volume I:Issue IV, now available to members on the Procurement Leaders app, ready to download here from iTunes and Google Play

This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.