The innovation landscape
A tradition of innovation
Since Kommer Damen took control of Damen nearly 50 years ago, research and development has become a key part of the group’s success. Right from the beginning he introduced what were then unheard-of ideas of standardisation and modular building, and the much faster delivery times that resulted were a near-instant hit, particularly with the Dutch dredging industry. The dredging industry needed to be able to respond quickly to new contracts, and this new approach to shipbuilding gave them a significant advantage. Word spread swiftly about the shipyard that dared to do things differently and the orders started to flow in.
This was just the beginning. Mr Damen’s willingness to tear up the rulebook and take a fresh look at how ships could be designed and built coincided with a period when the maritime sector was growing rapidly and owners and operators were increasingly looking for more complex, specialist vessels that could undertake specific tasks. Whilst continuing to drive innovation in its business processes, the Damen organisation also began broadening its product range; using its willingness to explore and adopt new technologies alongside its ability to cut delivery times without sacrificing quality to engage with customers and meet their often highly specific needs. One example of this is the Enlarged Ship Concept, developed in the early 1990s in partnership with the Delft University of Technology. By experimenting with larger hulls than normal for a given amount of internal space, this research showed that the result was lower resistance and better seakeeping, particularly important for offshore patrol boats and similar craft. This focus on performance in turn led to the design of the Sea Axe Bow, to this day probably the most well-known of Damen’s design innovations. The Sea Axe configuration has transformed high-speed offshore operations and remains a key feature of Damen’s fast patrol and crew supply boats.
Further innovations followed, including the Azimuth Stern Drive (ASD) 2810 tug. Over 200 of these compact, manoeuvrable and very powerful harbour tugs have been sold. Its low-emissions hybrid equivalent, of which the Dutch Navy has ordered three, began in 2009 as the E3 project; a collaboration between Damen, tug operator Smit Internationale and system integrator Alewijnse Marine. Most recently, Damen has been playing a leading role in the European Innovation Project ‘Leanships’ (Low Energy And Near to zero emissions SHIPS), which includes developing a Reverse Stern Drive (RSD) tug running on compressed natural gas (CNG). The RSD hull form delivers equal performance when running both ahead and astern thanks to its revolutionary design, and natural gas (methane) is recognised as the cleanest of all fossil fuels.
A permanent revolution
Some companies innovate reluctantly, as change is forced upon them, but Damen welcomes the fast-changing world in which it operates, and the challenges that this brings. Its long history of looking for new ways to do things better means that its structure has inbuilt flexibility and its staff are always looking out for ways to differentiate it from its competitors. The group’s emphasis on standardization has also been a major factor in its ability to innovate. Standardisation allows it to create successive generations of a vessel, each one representing an incremental improvement on those that have gone before, based on customer feedback and the application of new research, materials and technology. It also means that new vessels do not need to be entirely redesigned from the keel up, making the process both faster and more cost effective.
Some innovation is driven by forces external to the maritime industry. These can be economic, such as high oil prices, or, increasingly, regulatory, particularly with regard to the environment. Here Damen has always been highly responsive, developing specific products such as the ASD 2810 Hybrid tug and also continuously refining its product portfolio to maximise fuel efficiency through better design. In other areas, such as ballast water treatment systems, it has ensured that it has a range of products available well in advance of the mandatory adoption date.
Damen also seeks to identify changing market conditions and the arrival of new opportunities, well in advance. In recent years it has developed specialist vessels to anticipate the needs of new sectors such as offshore renewables and aquaculture by developing the Service Operations Vessel (SOV), a completely new class for the efficient maintenance of wind farms, and a Utility Vessel range for aquaculture and other multifunction tasks. Work is also currently underway on a deepsea mining concept.
Of course, none of this is possible without close coordination with its clients and the wider industry. Listening and asking questions is an important part of innovation, and the Damen sales teams spend a lot of time talking to owners and operators to learn and frustrations and, critically, what their customers want from them. This information is then used to drive the search for new and more effective solutions.
When it comes to maintaining a lead in innovation, the greatest challenges come from the disruptive technologies that these days come thick and fast from the global IT industry. Picking those that offer the most added value and adapting them for maritime applications requires foresight, an in-depth knowledge of the key drivers of the industry and substantial resources. Currently top of the list are digitisation, data analytics and the internet of things (IoT), together these represent a great opportunity and a great challenge.
Meeting the challenge
Those early Damen employees who began looking for ways to do things differently, and better, would not recognise Damen’s R&D resource base in 2017. Nearly 100 individuals across Europe and Asia are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of ship design and construction, while internal programmes and initiatives encourage everyone within the group to contribute ideas and insights that will support the development of solutions for Damen’s customers. From its main hub in Gorinchem, the Netherlands, the R&D department supports both new vessel development and a series of broader programmes across a variety of time scales. Of these, the Damen Cooperative Research programme takes the longest view and is currently running four major projects.
Three of these are focusing on specific technologies; composites, and how they can be applied to the building of larger vessels; an analysis and validation of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to create a virtual towing tank that will reduce the time needed to design and test new hull forms; and the development of air lubrication systems for hulls to reduce fuel consumption.
The fourth project is developing solutions regarding the industrycritical issue of vessel monitoring and performance. The digitization of onboard systems and the ability to analyse the data onshore in real time has huge potential to revolutionise shipping as we know it. Innovations such as condition-based maintenance have the scope to dramatically reduce operating costs, while the advent of safe and reliable autonomous vessels is the ultimate goal for more than a few in the industry.
With a close eye on more immediate benefits for its clients, Damen also operates short-term programmes that focus on the continuous improvement of existing products and technologies. These include investigations into noise and vibration, new coatings, virtual design optimisation and fender design, and the group is always looking for more opportunities. Project Morpheus is just one initiative that invites everyone in the group to think like an entrepreneur and submit ideas for any aspect of the business and product portfolio. Since its start, 240 ideas have been reviewed and the six teams who have made it through to the final round now receive support, guidance and time to develop their ideas to the point at which they can be implemented. Innovation sprints is another technique in use at Damen, whereby multifunctional teams are given just 3 months to take an idea and establish its desirability, feasibility and viability.
No time to stand still
The key to Damen’s success has been its culture of welcoming change and where possible taking the lead in driving it onwards in search of new and better ways to help its customers. All the group’s initiatives and programmes share the common goal of giving the product groups within Damen the tools they need to build and deliver vessels with the capabilities and attributes that their clients need now and in the future. The continual process of innovation driving feedback, and feedback driving innovation, ensures that the objective of meeting customer needs is never forgotten, and momentum is maintained by doing this in a collaborative and collegiate way. Enthusiastically celebrating success ensures that everyone in the group is encouraged to get involved.
Encouraging innovation, embracing change and always looking ahead is the Damen way. Whatever the future may hold for the Damen Shipyards Group, it certainly isn’t going to be dull!