Thursday, May 03, 2012

RIP FastShip, Hello TGPS

Oceangoing shipping is an industry that is very resistant to technological change.  The basic hull designs and propulsion systems of supertankers and container ships haven't changed much in decades.  The cost of a new large ship and a port facility to match its configuration is enough to make innovation prohibitively expensive.  Game-changing technology in shipping has a different flavor than some new app in social media.

I have been watching FastShip since 1995.  Their concept of adapting the hull designs for speedboats to large ships configured for containers and roll-on / roll-off cargo had the potential to speed shipping times.  Give them credit for big, bold thinking in technology.  The problem is that shaving a day or two off trans-Atlantic shipping times won't make a material difference in the economics of most finished goods.  Pacific Ocean lanes might have been a different story but FastShip never tried to go there.  A speedy cargo ship would mainly be attractive as an alternative to air freight for perishable food that must be delivered fast.  It's unfortunate that FastShip never raised enough capital to build their first ship and dock; the company went bankrupt in March.  FastShip's end clears the way for an application of speed on a smaller scale.  I would like to see a shipbuilder spend some R&D on a medium-size (Panamax or smaller) hydrofoil or hovercraft for use on short routes.

Shipping innovation lives on in propulsion.  Gamma Light and Heavy Industries (GLHI) has developed The Gamma Propulsion System (TGPS) to cut fuel consumption and emissions.  If this really works as advertised, the impact of oil price volatility on shipping costs will be dramatically reduced.  Shippers can curtail their slow steaming incidents and reduce the cost of any fuel hedges they use.

Comparing these two technologies is instructive for shipbuilders.  Radical redesigns to hulls and docks are costly and have little payoff except in niche applications.  Power train improvements can be adapted to existing hull designs.  That's how you score innovation in shipping.

Full disclosure:  No positions in any companies mentioned.