From student to teacher in shipbuilding

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

From student to teacher in shipbuilding

Rhee Shin-hyung
The author is a professor in the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at Seoul National University and president of the Society of Naval Architects of Korea.

The United States sent its most advanced naval frigate to Japan and Joseon Korea in the mid-19th century to demand the opening of the countries. It was a side-wheel steamer — a hybrid of a wooden hull and masts and iron for the steam boiler and engine — that crossed the Pacific. An ill-fated and famous ocean liner — the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 — had wing propellers, but was powered by gigantic steam engines instead of internal combustion engines.

The ships powered by internal-combustion engines and four-bladed screw propellers these days have a history of about a century. Vessels have evolved and sea carriers are dramatically changing in the 21st century — along with all the supply chains.

If not for tests, many would wish to go back to their school days. Unfortunately, Korea’s shipbuilding industry has been test taking for the past 50 years. It excels in getting the answers right, but has not reached the position to provide the questions. It merely sits for one test after another — all set by others. The time has come for Korea’s shipbuilding industry to take the initiative to shake the maritime landscape and act as a rule-setter in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other related organizations.

Shipbuilding is the oldest gamble in civilization. As big money is at stake, reason and common sense are often overruled, not to mention rules. To shake the speculation, one must become the lion. A lion often appears in royal or national symbols in Europe and is regarded as the king of the jungle. However, Korean shipwrights have to settle to be mules though they have sufficient potential to become the kings of the sea.

A mule is a sterile cross between a donkey and a horse and ends its life carrying burdens without leaving offspring. The Korean shipbuilding industry desperately needs momentum to gain the lion’s spirit. The waters on planet earth are entirely connected, but the Korean maritime industry runs in pieces. Just as government offices handling shipbuilding, shipping and maritime financing are all different, so are education facilities that groom skilled manpower. Each one of them lives as a mule.

The over-competitive shipbuilders should be streamlined based on the market conditions, and cooperation with ship-owners should be enhanced. The administrative and regulatory bureaucracies dealing with shipbuilding and shipping also demand a realignment. Schools and other facilities educating those to build and operate ships must be interconnected for a greater understanding of the respective fields.

Ships are responsible for a whopping 99 percent of international logistics in spite of the pandemic and supply bottlenecks from Russia’s war in Ukraine. The ratio won’t likely change until the earth perishes. But shipping will continue to change. Digitalization, green initiatives and decentralization have been leading the latest transition.

Automated shipping spearheads the digital transition. Autonomous vessel technology has already outpaced the technology of self-driving vehicles. Navigating a recreational boat into the harbor or port is a challenging job for an amateur mariner. As a boat does not have a brake, its movement can greatly depend on the currents. A Korean start-up has come up with an AI-driven navigation assistance system for path guidance and autonomous docking.
The solution gained international recognition as one of the best autonomous technologies at the 2022 CES in the beginning of the year. A Korean LNG tanker also completed the world’s first transoceanic voyage of a large merchant ship using an autonomous solution.
A 300,000-ton oil supertanker is being assembled at the Okpo shipyard of the Daewoo Shipbuilding & Maritime Engineering (DSME) at Geoje Island, South Gyeongsang in July. [DSME]

Just as a self-driving car is a large computing system on wheels, a vessel is becoming a colossal system connected with numerous solutions for autonomous electronics and electric connectivity. Automated solutions for a Tesla car make up one sixth of the production cost of the car. When automated systems are mounted on a ship of much greater weight and size, it becomes even more expensive. Korea must take leadership in automated navigation systems and actively engage them to change the paradigm at sea.

Nuclear-powered unmanned ship
The green transition relies on sustainable energy. LNG and methanol are already being used as alternative fuels. Vessels will soon be fueled by ammonia, hydrogen and nuclear power. Due to the risks, the use of nuclear fuel on the ground should be explored carefully. But an accident onboard can be less damaging. Small nuclear modular systems also are being developed.
When backed with autonomous navigation technology, an unmanned nuclear-powered vessel can sail without refueling for 40 years. Since it does not need refueling, it does not have to call at ports.
With the employment of drones, loading and unloading also will not require human labor. That is a dramatically different concept from a harbor, as the solution saves a ship from making port calls, and a vessel only needs to slow for loading and unloading. Drones can also simplify intermediary logistics to deliver the cargo to destinations or nearby logistics centers to cut cost and time of delivery.

For safety, nuclear-propelled ships can dock at offshore platforms distant from inhabited areas. Self-navigated nuclear-powered ships can dock at the platform according to their schedule, and maintenance would require minimum manpower. The concept may sound bizarre for now — and could trigger strong resistance. But we don’t have to go on following the traditional rules set by others.

Decentralization and blockchain technologies
Decentralization will become pivotal in the digital and green migration. The world is already being run by data. Amassing, stocking and processing an enormous amount of data requires energy, infrastructure, and manpower. Therefore, more resources should not go into drawing up a new paradigm of sustainable logistics. Decentralized technology can enable independent — yet interactive — operation of related systems.
If nuclear-powered vessels and drones are managed by a centralized system, huge resources could be wasted, and security questions will arise. Decentralization is the key here. All the systems at sea should be operated separately — and interactively at the same time — with blockchain technology guaranteeing security. Artificial intelligence, therefore, will become central in shipbuilding.
Fostering high-level talent and R&D can make the changes happen. The two must go hand in hand. Brain and R&D power must work together. Korea must not compete with China in shipbuilding anymore. Instead, it must make China a key customer. Just as ship-owners consign shipbuilding to Korean dockyards by demanding European technology, Korea must make China rely on Korean technology.
University curricula also must change. Instead of lecturing based on textbooks, college courses must reflect student and corporate needs. Engineering students must be able to choose courses based on their interests and aptitude rather than following the curriculum set by the school, and should be allowed to get multiple degrees.

Allow multiple majors
Getting a single degree cannot support a 40-year career. Retraining opportunities should be expanded to keep workers abreast of the changes. Companies and universities must work together to provide micro-degrees within six months of finishing a major course.
The government must assist in the development of new technologies, not just for the current industry. Korea sweeps global orders for LNG carriers. But LNG tankers use a technology patented by a French company. Korea must pay approximately a 5-percent license fee when building an LNG carrier based on the patented technology. The French company has been dominating the market by continuing to ratchet up the level of the technology it developed in the 1960s.
The government must stop ordering new technologies from Korea’s global shipbuilders and giving out cash assistance in return. Instead, it must offer indirect incentives through taxes, financing and deregulation to spur their investment in R&D. Only then can Korean shipbuilders roar over the global logistics industry as the lion in the jungle.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)