Automation Helps Crews Run a Tight Ship

Automation Helps Crews Run a Tight Ship
Automation Helps Crews Run a Tight Ship

Westport Yachts, based in Washington State, is the leading yacht builder in North America and among the largest in the world. They currently construct luxury models ranging from 112 to 172 feet long and have launched hundreds of luxury yachts since their founding in 1964. While these seagoing vessels fulfill their eventual owner’s desires for style and taste, they must also be built with the utmost reliability using proven technologies (Figure 1).

Figure 1: This sleek 125-foot Westport luxury yacht incorporates modern technologies—such as automation—when they are proven to meet technical and performance requirements and can deliver the utmost reliability.

Some yacht construction technology, such as hull design, is rooted in history but has been updated with better design methods, materials, and fabrication techniques. Other elements—such as electrical, sensor and control systems—have advanced rapidly in recent years. Specialists at Westport must continually evaluate and adopt these and other automation technologies to meet technical and performance requirements.
Over the last 20 years, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and human-machine interfaces (HMIs) have played an increasingly important role for automating many shipboard systems. Read on to find out how Westport integrated modern automation systems into their world-class yachts.

Learning the ropes of traditional yacht systems

Automation on ships of all sizes has traditionally been hardwired and relatively basic, even as it advanced to using switches, gauges and indicator lights. Much of the time indication was local, or perhaps remote using an engraved mimic panel. These components were assembled to achieve a single purpose in a reliable manner, but in most cases did not take advantage of modern automation technologies.
System reliability is of the upmost importance with any vessel and one of the key factors considered for any component or item of equipment to be included aboard a ship. Many different systems are required and are typically designed in a stand-alone manner because this relative simplicity often translates into many years of reliable service. However, modern systems are more capable and there is a call for a more integrated approach.
Westport engineers and designers apply time-tested methods and materials but are constantly on the lookout for improvements. Sometimes users request new options, but most of the improvements are generated by internal initiatives. While sometimes the tech may be basic, the effort to design the logic behind these new systems, coordinate them, and plan for the associated wiring is no small feat.

Escaping the doldrums

As on-board subsystems and support systems became more numerous and complicated, it was necessary to look for improved monitoring and control. Many subsystems come with their own specialized controls, so a new automation platform would also need to be suitable for filling in the gaps between packaged subsystems. The goal was to add capability, preserve simplicity, and minimize installation and maintenance costs.
Some examples of typical shipboard systems, each with varying levels of intelligence, are:

  • Automated power distribution

  • Generator starting schemes

  • Heat, fire, smoke, and CO2 detectors

  • Tank and bilge level indication

  • Actuated doors and pop-up heads

  • Door alarm systems

  • Lighting control

  • Seawater-cooled air conditioning plant

Integrating these unique subsystems—which in some cases need to interact with each other—into a cohesive whole can present many different challenges. Different subsystem vendors use a variety of automation platforms, some of them proprietary. Historically, the integration of these systems required additional hardwired signals and research into the different requirements for connecting the signals from one system to the next.
More recently, hardwired signals have been superseded with digital methods. Originally this took the form of RS-232 signals, and today it is more common to find Ethernet employed, using various industrial or commercial protocols. Different communication protocols typically require some level of translation from one system to another.
An entire industry has evolved to create various gateways and converters for this purpose, but these extra devices add complexity and come at a cost as they drive up material, installation, and design effort—while potentially reducing reliability. Troubleshooting more intricate systems becomes difficult, and designers must consider the technical ability of shipboard personnel and worldwide facilities charged with maintaining these systems.

Getting on board with PLCs and HMIs

PLCs and HMIs are already used by industrial and manufacturing industries to automate many functions similar to the shipboard systems previously mentioned. Because they are built to withstand harsh environments, these industrial PLCs, HMIs, and associated devices are a natural fit for yacht automation.
There are many PLC vendors on the market, but finding one capable of supplying reliable and cost-effective components led Westport to begin adopting AutomationDirect PLCs around the year 2000. Since then, they have used AutomationDirect product lines ranging from the DL05 series to the Productivity series PLCs. These PLCs provided the flexibility to adjust operations and add new functionality as needed.
HMIs complement PLCs used on shipboard systems by providing at-a-glance status, with options to view more detailed information (Figure 2). Multiple HMIs can be distributed in the pilothouse, the engine room, and at other locations to get the information to the crew where they need it.

Figure 2: AutomationDirect C-more HMIs—such as this unit displaying a fire detection system overview—can be installed in multiple locations to provide the crew with information where it is needed.

The programmable nature of digital PLCs and HMIs means new functionality can be added later in the design process, with wiring changes minimized, or not needed at all if the necessary input/output points were connected (Figure 3). This makes modifications quicker and easier, and remote diagnostics and troubleshooting support become possible.

Figure 3: The maritime-certified AutomationDirect Productivity3000 PLC is compact and simplifies wiring, both ideal for shipboard service.

Westport has progressively adopted automation capabilities, such as:

  • PLCs concentrate information from other packaged systems and control shipboard functions like automated doors

  • HMIs provide remote graphical display and accept crew inputs (with proper authorization), at multiple locations as needed

  • Alarms, events, and data points are logged and historized for later analysis and to identify trends

  • Advanced diagnostics information and troubleshooting guidance is provided

  • Ethernet communications effectively consolidate multiple subsystems into a single cohesive system

  • Reduced wiring cost and complexity, as each input/output point is only wired once to a PLC I/O module and then becomes available for all monitoring and control purposes

By using the AutomationDirect portfolio of PLCs, HMIs, and remote I/O for all their automation needs, Westport simplified their designs and implementation without compromising reliability. If questions arose as the team implemented this industrial technology, AutomationDirect supplied responsive support as needed via detailed documentation, online methods, and phone communications.

A class act

Initially, PLCs found their way into less critical applications on the vessel, such as operating lighting and doors. But for incorporating more critical systems—like fire detection, alarming, or navigational control—the automation systems required proper certification.
There are many possible industry certifications. Yacht builders can buy subsystems that are already classed, or they can configure their own out of equipment deemed suitable for maritime use. If components are used that are not type approved, they must undergo rigorous testing, which can be costly and time consuming. Additionally, testing must be repeated if a component is to be used on another vessel.
This challenge for adopting industrial automation devices for the yacht industry was overcome when FACTS Engineering, an AutomationDirect PLC manufacturer, followed through on a Westport request and had components classified by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Westport preferred ABS certification because it is a US based society with some of the more rigorous certification requirements, which elevates the Westport end products above other builders using lesser or unclassed methods.

Charting the course

PLCs and HMIs have provided a solid platform to build upon for today’s and future needs, enabling Westport to deliver new features and maintain the reliability needed out at sea.
For example, even as ships travel anywhere in the world it is now possible for technicians to remotely connect to the onboard automation systems—using carefully vetted credentials—via Wi-Fi, cellular, or even satellite. Of course, there are still privacy issues, so remote connectivity must be implemented with care. Even when an owner requests a remote technician to access the systems, there is a step in the process where the owner formally authorizes Westport to ‘come aboard’ via remote connectivity. This is just one of many new capabilities made possible by selecting the right technology.
Besides adding new features, incorporating all the subsystems into a single system enables the crew to make quicker and more informed decisions, troubleshoot easier, and maintain an improved overview of the vessel. Trying to track down an alert that needs to be addressed or capturing the sequences of events from many different systems is now a relatively simple task. These capabilities translate into the reliability and ease of use necessary to meet the expectations of luxury vessel operators.
After 20 years of progressively increasing service, the application of AutomationDirect industrial automation products in shipboard systems is not just a tale of the sea, but is instead considered another time-tested, proven technology in the builder’s toolbox. By continuing the course toward embracing modern technologies as they become proven, Westport has found another way to set themselves apart as the world’s premier yacht builder.
All figures are courtesy of Westport Yachts.

About The Author

Westport Yachts, based in Washington State, is the leading yacht builder in North America and among the largest in the world. They currently construct luxury models ranging from 112 to 172 feet long and have launched hundreds of luxury yachts since their founding in 1964.

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