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Boost for propeller development

Antti A. Lagus | 5.6.2014

​Wärtsilä, supplier of versatile maritime solutions, has opened a new propulsion test centre in Tuusula. Intended for the validation of Wärtsilä’s product range of azimuth propulsion units, the centre was developed in collaboration with VTT and industrial companies. VTT provides the resources for operating the test centre, which will also apply a new kind of R&D approach: joint innovation.

Propellers, the part of the propulsion system that provides the thrust to move a ship forwards through the water, and occasionally backwards, are generally of three types: fixed pitch propellers, controllable pitch propellers, or azimuth thrusters. 

Wärtsilä, in collaboration with VTT, has been developing a new product range of azimuth thrusters that will enhance vessel manoeuvrability. Azimuth thrusters are used primarily in tugboats, service vessels and ice-going vessels such as icebreakers.

The propulsions systems are designed at the Wärtsilä facility in the Netherlands, with production plants located in Italy and China. For Elias Boletis, Director of Propulsion Programs and Technologies at Wärtsilä, R&D means three things: product development, technology development, and research of a more general nature with other parties. Wärtsilä collaborates with VTT in all three.

The testing equipment introduced at Tuusula last November is a new high point in more than 18 years of cooperation between Wärtsilä and VTT. One of the many areas explored by the partners during that time is the vibration and noise control of ship engines and diesel generator systems. Cooperation on the propulsion unit began in 2010. The preparation of next-generation products revealed the necessity for a good testing environment.


Ecosystem under construction

– We are trying to build a certain kind of ecosystem around this test centre, and to bring in as many participants as possible to test their equipment and components. We will also attempt to combine the results with those of our suppliers and customers. This is a model where ideas are being thrown around and upgraded, says Boletis.

Boletis thinks the working atmosphere with VTT has been very good. VTT has also been able to deliver the assignments on schedule, and their quality has been excellent.

The decision was taken to build the test centre in Finland because of VTT’s excellent experience in experimental research and building and operating testing environments. VTT also has the necessary measuring devices and measurement experience. 

This is a programme comprising several projects connected with propellers or applications of various sizes, some of which are already on the market. VTT has approximately 20 people participating in the programme.

The testing equipment was installed in an industrial hall leased from the Finnish Defence Forces. Although the hall had previously served as maintenance depot for armoured vehicles, its floor needed further reinforcement for testing equipment that weighs approximately one hundred tons.


Strict validation process

The test centre replicates the actual operating environment by connecting the propeller to a generator and frequency converter, as it would be on a ship. Because the propeller is out of the water, cooling is provided through showering, and the forces on the propeller simulated by means of hydraulic cylinders. 

– The testing equipment in Tuusula is used for product validation. Each new propulsion system undergoes a strict validation process prior to entering the market. Here the testing equipment will be a great help, says Boletis.

– Even after operating for only three months, we have already established reference data for new tests. Azimuth thrusters are part of our current product range. The tests also covered new environmentally friendly lubricants already in use in the United States and elsewhere. We first wanted to find out how these lubricants affect our azimuth propulsion units. This took us about a month and a half, but now we are ready to build the procedures that will help us and our end customers, says Boletis.

The results will help Wärtsilä modify its operating methods and make system adjustments that ensure the lubricants function correctly. According to Boletis, the questions being asked are not black and white, but the starting point was to establish new ways of operation. 


Joint innovation around the same table

A new operating method is being tested in collaboration with partners: joint innovation. The programme also involves universities and suppliers, including Tampere University of Technology, Luleå University of Technology, Dresden University of Technology, and Munich University of Technology. Companies involved include SKF and ATA Gears. The aim here is to use the material accrued as a basis for academic dissertations, among others.

Jouko Suokas, VTT’s Executive Vice Pre​sident, Smart Industry and Energy Systems, explains that projects have traditionally been run as Tekes- or EU-financed projects which then advance to product development. Here the participants sit around the same table and, instead of one person saying what to do, each contributes personal ideas in joint innovation.

Suokas considers the cooperation with Wärtsilä an excellent example of how to develop strategic partnerships, engaging significantly more brain capacity in exploring the problems. The Wärtsilä environment provides an excellent experimental R&D opportunity for this totally novel way of operating.


Targeting more efficient and lighter equipment

Pekka Koskinen, Technology Manager at VTT, adds that VTT is operating in accordance with its mission in aiming to create industrial jobs in Finland. The joint development ecosystem is the way of the future for producing the products of the future. Where the previous approach was from various angles, these perspectives are now combined into a single entity.

– We are aiming to build more efficient and lighter equipment that consumes less energy, has fewer energy losses and uses environmentally friendly lubricants, says Koskinen.

The testing equipment will help us understand the forces exerted by water and ice on propulsion devices. The aim of the programme is to produce more compact products and to enhance the reliability of equipment. This also has significant implications for equipment maintenance, which is why Wärtsilä is investing in real-time monitoring of vessels through its servicing centres.


 

 

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