Plain sailing for ship propulsion

A conversation on how ABB is driving the future of ship propulsion

ABB Azipod® propulsion
ABB Azipod® propulsion

Today marks the World Maritime Day, a United Nations International Day. This year’s theme is “Empowering women in the maritime community”. With a nod to this day, is a Q&A with an ABB Azipod® propulsion expert Mirva Nevalainen. With a master’s degree in naval architecture, Nevalainen specializes in arctic marine technology and product development. She had her first introduction to ABB at the age of 15, through work experience with her school in Finland. Today she is the General Manager for the low power range Azipod® propulsion factory in China.

ABB: Can you explain what an Azipod® is and what its benefits are?

Put simply, Azipod® units are designed to improve the maneuverability and efficiency of a vessel. Jointly developed in Finland by ABB, the shipbuilding company Masa-Yards and Finnish Maritime Association in 1990, it is a marine propulsion system that combines the propeller, rudder and motor into one unit, which rotates 360 degrees on its vertical axis. Initially developed for icebreaking vessels, cruise ships are now one of the largest users of Azipod® systems worldwide. The system has been installed on about 25 different ship types worldwide.

ABB: To design and install an Azipod® propulsion system on different vessels, you need to align diverse interests. How do you manage this?

The key to making sure we develop an Azipod® system that satisfies all parties, is communication. For example, the specific needs of a cruise liner will be very different from those of an ice-breaking cargo vessel. So, when ABB embarks on a new project, we start by gathering as much data as we can, from external and internal interest groups, to put together a market requirement specification.

My background in shipbuilding, coupled with ABB’s heritage in the market, also helps me to understand the bigger picture and develop solutions that will work best for our customers.

ABB: How do you help to make the ‘impossible’ possible, both technically and within ABB?

In my experience, the most important thing is to surround yourself with people with different backgrounds and expertise, that are all working towards the same goal. As long as you keep the overall objective in mind, it is vital to listen to diverse views and consider the bigger picture.

In Research & Development, we must be prepared to stretch ourselves when designing a new product. It is especially challenging when the customer has different needs and it’s hard to fulfil them all, so we have to compromise and agree what we can and can’t do.

Mirva Nevalainen, General Manager for the low power range Azipod® propulsion factory in China
Mirva Nevalainen, General Manager for the low power range Azipod® propulsion factory in China

ABB: Do you need to have special knowledge about shipping for your role or is it more about submerged motors?

Although I spend most of my time looking at vessels, funnily enough I’m not a keen sailor. It wasn’t a love of the sea or ships that led me to the Marine & Ports part of the business; it was just an area of the business that I found particularly interesting. By studying naval architecture, I’ve been able to gain a strong understanding of the sector and I draw on the expertise of my colleagues who sail, to give me a different perspective.

ABB: What is it like to be a female engineer working in the maritime sector

To be honest, I haven’t faced any specific challenges during my career as a female engineer and have always been treated equally. The shipbuilding industry is conventional in many ways, but it is still an area where, whether you are male or female, you have to prove yourself before you are trusted among customers and colleagues. The most important thing is to be yourself, always try to develop your skills and gain as much experience as you can.

ABB: What does the future hold for the sector?

Over recent years, the cruise industry has been booming and it will be interesting to see how China responds to this. Earlier this year, ABB has won the contract to deliver a comprehensive power and propulsion package for China’s first home-built cruise ship. One of the other trends that we’re responding to is more strict environmental regulations by the International Maritime Organization, which will impact the sector on a global scale. We see this as a positive opportunity for ABB to draw on its strong heritage to provide solutions that can help our customers respond to these regulations.

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