Propellerheads and thwarted innovation


Author: Mark Thompson, Founder & Managing Director

Back in the mid-90s, as a young engineer working for an offshore drilling contractor, I had an idea for an innovation on a rig I was working on.

This older-generation design included self-propulsion, meaning it could sail to its desired location before mooring up and drilling. But it no longer did. Such rigs had essentially become ‘barges’, towed from site to site, even though many, like this one, still had their unused propellers and shafts in place.

These redundant propulsion systems nonetheless still had to be inspected and maintained as part of the rig classification requirements. Since there was already a cost for not doing anything, I wondered if we could repurpose the equipment for a potential gain.

The rig used diesel engines to generate electricity onsite, which was costly. What if the props could freely turn with the ocean currents? Could they generate enough energy to power the accommodation and lights around the rigs? That would save at least some of the diesel burn and offset the existing effort of maintaining the props.

The modification was technically feasible, not too costly, and the diesel savings would continue for the rest of the rig’s life. But it wasn’t to be.

The issue was that tugs used for transit and all diesel costs were paid for by the client, the field operator. The modification offered no benefit to the drilling contractor who bore none of the cost. It was thus deemed cheaper to remove the system and seal the hulls when it was next convenient.

As an engineer, I wanted my invention to be adopted. Necessity may be the mother of invention, and I thought objective cost savings were enough. But I learned that an invention doesn’t become an innovation until it creates value. My innovation was stymied by the contracting parties’ misaligned interests.





Right idea, wrong time

How things have changed. Today, the modification would be a no-brainer, as drilling contractors seek ways to reduce their harmful emissions; they also shoulder the cost. These days, then, the benefits of my invention would accrue to the drilling contractor’s balance sheet.

Modern rig designs, however, use thrusters rather than propellers, both in transit and for station-keeping in waters too deep to moor in. The older rigs have long since had their propulsion stripped out. No propellers, no benefits from the ocean currents.

These thoughts were triggered by recent reports in the press about a ring-fenced £20 million a year support for tidal power generation. Perhaps we’ll start to see multisource offshore renewable energy generation through wind, current, and solar power.

Meanwhile, I know there are some smart folks in my network. I’d love to hear from you about what we might call ‘incidental innovation’. Whether success stories or unrealized ‘what ifs’, like mine.