Propulsion through the years

The propulsion business has experienced amazing innovations over the past several decades, and Aarno Niemi, Automation Manager at Steerprop, has seen it all. From design changes to business communications, technology is leading the shift. Niemi predicts one of the biggest changes is environmental friendliness.

Aarno Niemi joined the propulsion business in 1980 when technology was new in propulsion. He started with electric drives for locomotives, working on a project with the first megawatt-size frequency converter in the world.

He first worked in the marine business with deck machinery, when controls were simpler but unexploited. Niemi has seen changes in materials, calculations, knowledge and design tools, which now enable our company to design ultra-efficient propulsors for big and demanding vessels. Through technology development and new software over the past few decades, the business and design of propulsion systems have made great strides and opened up room for even more innovation in the marine market.

When Niemi first got into propulsion design in 1985, the controls were only manual, mechanical and pneumatic. There was no software. Over the years, the design tools have changed significantly. “Some time at the end of the 80s came electric controllers. They were in-house made electronic cards. At that time came the first processors to make the programs,” states Niemi.

In the late 80s, our company got its first CAD system, which Niemi explains was very straightforward to use. Since then, CAD system development has exploded onto the market, and we have seen great success in further simplifying the design process. The copying machine became another important tool to speed up design time.

Following this development was an active period of multiple changes in the marine market at the end of the 90s. We designed the first ice-breaker-class azimuth propulsor during this time, which was originally more popular for tug and workboats. As these propulsors became more reliable and efficient, cruise ships started using them. “That was the start of the new era of propulsor systems,” claims Niemi.

The next big change was the introduction of the first high-power PLCs in the early 2000s. The mathematics inside the PLC made them economically ideal for reliability and ease of use. It was simple technology and became popular because of the affordable price. Mechanical thrusters further helped the entire market to continue to thrive.

Throughout his many years in the business, Niemi has also seen big changes in the way communications have evolved in the marine market. Communication became more and more efficient throughout his career. In the beginning, all communications happened by writing letters, taking about three weeks to send and receive client requests. After telex and fax technologies were used more commonly in the late 80s, business communications started to speed up.

As the use of technology increased in propulsor design, it also helped improve communications. We now have Skype and email to communicate on a regular basis from remote locations. Personal presence is not as necessary as it was in the beginning of Niemi’s career, so communication is now much more productive.

During his decades-long career, Niemi has seen patterns of volatility within the marine market. Nearly every ten years he has noticed a market slump, with the biggest one in 2008.

What has remained constant, though, is the increase in propulsor efficiency over the years, which will also lead to big changes in the future. Niemi is convinced that the biggest thing coming is the green side of the business. Adding batteries and having vessels run on LNG is improving environmental friendliness within the marine market.

Advanced machinery, coupled with the use of electrical, hydrogen and battery-powered vessels, is encouraging the move to go green. This combination offers unmatched reliability and efficiency, as well as cuts service and fuel consumption costs.

Niemi predicts the next five to ten years will show even bigger changes, especially when it comes to the use of electric motors and permanent magnet motors within the company, which are the next thing on the horizon for us at Steerprop. These motors can be installed inside a vessel’s hull, which cuts maintenance costs.

The combination of these two technologies will propel us into the next big wave of change in the marine market and help us continue to pioneer the industry.


About the author:

Aarno Niemi is recently retired Senior Automation Manager of Steerprop. Aarno received M. Sc. degree in electrical engineering from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1981 and has worked in marine industry for over 30 years. In the recent years he has been involved in development of high power CRP (Contra-Rotating Propellers) propulsion units and superior azimuth propulsor with integrated permanent magnet (PM) motor.

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