Engineering, Engineering Methods Development

What do olives and offshore structures have in common?

If we are discussing the North Sea you might think it’s because most of them have holes in them, but we have a slightly different take on this…

Famously the airline industry has invested heavily in reducing weight. In 1987, American Airlines removed a single olive from each of its in-flight salads, reducing costs by a remarkable $40,000 a year. Now, can modern offshore engineering using digital methods apply a similar approach to save not just costs, but also carbon emissions?

The world is on a clear mission to net zero and at Fathom we have been considering what the engineer’s role is in meeting that challenge. As subsea and structural engineers working in the offshore engineering sector, we have identified a great opportunity to make a significant impact, especially in the earliest design phases.

In terms of the waste hierarchy, the design stage is the point where we can have the biggest impact in reducing waste. In the offshore industry this waste reduction would come in the form of minimising the use of materials (commonly steel) and the energy required to fabricate and transport the structures and equipment to location.

Taking a look at one high growth industry – offshore wind – 12,000 units are being installed globally by 2025, which represents 3.5 million tonnes of steel in foundations alone. With 1 tonne of steel production releasing up to 3 tonnes of CO2, we can quickly understand how early choices by engineers are critical in reducing carbon emissions. These emissions are then increased, per tonne, when fabrication and transport are considered. This is why intelligent design to minimise our use of materials is one area that Fathom have been tackling.

Offshore engineering involves complex and time-consuming processes, and a degree of over-engineering is inherently necessary. This conservatism ensures safety and confidence, especially with the costs and risks associated in working in the marine environment. However, conservatism most often leads to heavier structures, and this means more steel,  and on an industrial scale this translates to a vast amount of material which is essentially dead-weight. This represents a vast volume of CO2 in steel production alone, and then we should consider the extra energy, and subsequent emissions, required for fabrication and transport.

The degree of over engineering varies significantly, however, our experience is that there is always room to reduce this conservatism if project schedules and budgets allow, but the reality is that due to the complexity and time pressures there is a limited number of iterations an engineer can produce, often resulting in the best solution being overlooked.

Perhaps it will change in the future, but it’s a current reality for engineers that they won’t get more budget or more time from their clients in order to optimise structures and equipment to reduce emissions. And it may be hard to justify further engineering costs for optimisation if this is not going to be clearly offset by savings in fabrication costs. So how do we enable engineers to design more sustainably now?

At Fathom we have been digitising the engineering process, automating and standardising tasks, which allows us to free-up engineers’ time and this time can be used for optimisation. Not only does this get us to solutions faster, but by implementing these steps we can then run iterations far quicker and allow for the extra optimisation loops which will lead to the confident reduction in structural mass and subsequently save CO2. We have already implemented a number of these digital workflows within our own organisation and can see the effects clearly, sometimes with up to 80% efficiency improvement. You may question whether reduced conservatism will lead to reduced safety, but actually we believe quite the opposite is true, as standardisation and automation will reduce human error, and this will only improve quality and safety.

We have also previously discussed the importance and value of a well-considered Basis of Design and Analysis (BoDA), and this is another critical factor in framing the engineering problem, and ensuring the right aspects are being considered in the design from the start.

So in short, where are the olives?

  1. Efficiency at the engineering process level can free up engineering time and budget for optimisation iterations.
  2. Optimisation can allow us to confidently reduce structural mass, and therefore reduce steel usage and hence the CO2 emissions from its production.
  3. Reduced structural mass leads to further CO2 reduction in fabrication, transport and installation.

We’d be really keen to hear how this is being addressed, or even discussed in your organisations and professional networks – so we look forward to feedback, from olive you.