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  • Célestin Toeset

Circular Pathways - Navigating Circularity in the Maritime Sector

Shipping is witnessing a paradigm shift towards sustainable practices. One of the latest milestones in the process was the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) ‘2023 Strategy on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships’ intended to be a “follow-up programme” to the Initial Strategy of 2018. The Strategy proposes a set of guidelines to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an industry that represents 80% of international trade. Shipping companies and governmental authorities (among others) have led the charge by integrating a range of sustainable fuels into existing processes. Simultaneously, consumers and advocacy organisations have placed themselves as proponents for increased transparency on sourcing and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). In this article, we focus on the latter two points, exploring how the transition offers an opportunity to rethink shipbuilding practices and the importance of technological support in facilitating this.

Accounting for nearly 3% of global emissions, the maritime transport sector needs revision. Facing increased levels of scrutiny, a majority of industry actors have realised it is no longer sufficient to simply make reactionary changes. The fast-paced nature of regulation makes it so shipbuilders are forced to think long-term, opening the door for the implementation of large-scale transformations. Among the many solutions put forward, modular design and the standardisation of shipbuilding have been partly overshadowed by rapid research and development in sustainable fueling. Nonetheless, adopting industry-wide standardisation practices promises to play a sizable role in the transition. 

The future of shipbuilding will undeniably be impacted by new standards and targets. To understand what this means for current industry practices, we must delve into the current landscape of manufacturing and get a clearer picture of the problems that tend to arise. Traditional shipbuilding works on a make-to-order (MTO) basis, where vessels are only produced once an order is placed. It makes for a lengthy and costly process that makes it difficult to retroactively make ships comply with new regulations, essentially creating a short lifecycle for said products. This is where modular manufacturing comes in. As a practice that enables different prefabricated components to be assembled at any stage into a final product, it reduces both the time and cost of the aforementioned more classic approach. Parallel workflows make for a flexible process that can proactively respond to new regulations, changing designs, and other unforeseeable hurdles. Additionally, it would allow existing vessels to be retrofitted and meet updated standards, reinforcing the sense of circularity throughout the value chain. 

Getting to this end, however, requires the active commitment of all stakeholders to bettering existing practices and spreading the notion of circularity in designs and production lines. Such engagement calls for a rethinking of ownership structures. The current MTO system does not affect all shipowners equally. Some owners design, operate, and maintain large fleets, often replicating successful designs across their vessels. Others, however, operate smaller fleets acquired second-hand. Further complicating matters, some owners hold onto their vessels for their entire lifespan, while others maintain newer fleets, selling older ships for continued use. 

The sporadic nature of shipbuilding is hereby directly reflected by ownership. Transitioning the shipping industry to a circular economy requires collaboration across the entire ecosystem. In this sense, transparency is key in allowing for the establishment of common goals and objectives. Financial incentives and structures need to be implemented to ensure commercial viability and discourage current practices where owners prioritise building new ships when costs are low and selling them when prices are high. Additionally, the incentives should address strategic decisions like building custom ships and scrapping older vessels rather than selling them. 

Fostering partnerships across the industry's value chain will be crucial for achieving a circular economy in shipping. Data sharing among maritime entities, producers, and authorities would improve transparency insofar as it facilitates material traceability and general information. This could be used by shipbuilders to favour reusing parts that are still compliant with regulations instead of immediately asking for a new replacement part. Some have put forth the idea of a product passport to advance this idea, improving clarity about the source and ecological impact alike. The European Union, for instance, put out a call for proposals for a Digital Product Passport which, although not restricted to the maritime sector, can be used in some form at the manufacturing level. 

Production lines alone cannot be solely responsible for turning the industry circular. Shipping must embrace technology as a catalyst for change. Forward-thinking players in the shipping industry are starting to recognize the immense potential of looking beyond their sector for inspiration. Traditionally, shipping companies have gravitated towards solutions that seamlessly integrate with their existing workflows and established supplier relationships. This often translates to a preference for specific brands, like a trusted engine manufacturer or a familiar satellite navigation system. However, the potential benefits of asset standardisation are worth considering, even though the task may seem daunting at first glance. Widespread adoption of standardised components across the industry could be a game-changer, paving the way for a more efficient and streamlined approach. 

Transitioning to circular systems presents various benefits for industries across the board, including improvements in supply chain efficiency, increased data capture, and access to advanced, digitised manufacturing processes. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and predictive analytics equip us with a deeper understanding of materials by optimising processing, application, and design. In the context of the maritime industry, these technologies can potentially predict the global flow of goods and resources with greater accuracy. Beyond that, additive manufacturing (or cloud manufacturing) and 3D printing hold immense potential in facilitating the shift from linear to circular processes. Optimising supply chains by establishing hyper-local resource loops and regionalised manufacturing and repair centres translates to improved efficiency and upgradability. This approach allows for the rapid customization and production of specialised products, enabling shorter turnaround times and paving the way for innovative service offerings. This willingness to look beyond traditional solutions and explore the potential of innovative technologies signals a significant shift in the mindset of the shipping industry. By harnessing the power of digitization and fostering collaboration across industries, shipping companies can navigate the transition toward a more sustainable and efficient future.

While embracing the potential of modular construction, the shipbuilding industry faces hurdles that still need to be addressed. Regulatory frameworks and integration complexities pose initial challenges, but innovative solutions and industry collaboration are paving the way for a smoother transition. Existing maritime regulations, designed for traditional shipbuilding methods, may not fully encompass the nuances of modular construction. This can lead to delays and compliance issues. For instance, ensuring modular construction standards align seamlessly with established regulations is crucial to guarantee safety and adherence to international maritime conventions. Seamless integration of diverse modular components requires standardised interfaces and protocols across shipyards. Incompatibility between modules during assembly can create significant complications. One example is harmonising communication and connection standards between modular sections to ensure a smooth and efficient assembly process.

Overall, shipping’s green transition presents an opportunity to rethink and revamp value chains. Moving away from the classic MTO approach in favour of modular manufacturing and reusing used components will improve flexibility in designing and ordering vessels as well as lowering costs. However, its successful implementation hinges on industry-wide collaboration. Stakeholders must work together to establish transparent practices, from responsible sourcing of materials to data sharing that facilitates traceability throughout the lifecycle of a specific vessel. Standardisation of components and digital tools will be instrumental in achieving the promotion of circularity within the industry. A future characterised by cleaner seas, optimised resource utilisation, and a renewed commitment to environmental responsibility is within reach, but it requires a collective effort from all players within the maritime ecosystem. But this is not a standalone issue area. Introducing circular economy principles goes beyond manufacturing. It requires adequate financing, and healthy economic and political environments to enable a transition, as well as a significant shift in the perception of circularity within the sector. Many factors have probably yet to be linked to the emergence of sustainable shipping, but the above-stated solutions offer a potential starting point for industry-wide change. 


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