Chinese shipbuilding reaches another milestone

What a difference a lifetime makes. Many years ago, when I was in the business of buying and selling freighters, it was understood that the only engines worth having were European — not just European but Northern European.

British, French (shudder) and Italian (violent shudder) engines didn’t make the cut. There were several reasons, but they generally related to the unique demands of ocean freighters for maximum efficiency and reliability. That means low rpm, and the slower an engine’s revolutions, the tighter the tolerances needed and the more challenging the metallurgy. Only North European engines met those challenges.

Even after Japanese carmakers had overtaken their European counterparts, both in design and manufacturing, Western shipowners still wouldn’t buy a used bulker with a Japanese engine except at fire-sale prices. Then, in the 1990s, Japanese and South Korean foundries and engine manufacturers found success building European low-speed engines under license, with names like Mitsui B&W and Hyundai/MAN. But Chinese yards, with slave wages labor and zero governmental interference, had already begun to crowd out Japanese yards, just as the Japanese yards had crowded out European yards two decades years earlier. For shipowners, price is king.

Then a few years ago, the first Chinese-manufactured low-speed engines began to appear in Chinese hulls, MAN designs built in Dalian, China. That trend reached its logical conclusion with yesterday’s announcement by Finnish engine manufacturer Wärtsilä of a new ship’s engine, a low-speed Tier 3 diesel developing up to 25,000 hp to be built by Hudong Heavy Machinery Co. Ltd. (HHM), Hudong, China. Wärtsilä’s press release was typically low key, but the announcement that the Chinese are not only manufacturing a high-tech, low-speed engine to a European design but will be its sole manufacturer, signifies a milestone in China’s hegemony in the shipbuilding industry.

Lloyd’s Register has already issued its class approval of the engine, so even NKK (the Japanese class society) will soon have to follow suit, however grudgingly. ABS, the U.S. class society, shouldn’t have any problem — there are no U.S.-built low-speed ship engines, just as there are no large U.S.-built freighters. The U.S. ceded its superiority in cargo-ship and low-speed-engine design to the Europeans shortly after World War II, so yesterday’s announcement by Wärtsilä may only be another step in a long and troubling process that began over 80 years ago.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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