Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead to announce a £4bn cash injection for the UK shipbuilding sector as part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
Inevitably, the main focus was on the pipeline of more than 150 vessels that will be built over the next 30 years. In particular, Cammell Laird, is targeting the £24bn Royal Navy budget to be spent on new ships, and specifically the contract for the three replacement Fleet Solid Support ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
However, the strategy isn’t just good news for the industry giants such as Cammell Laird, Babcock and BAE. Thousands of SMEs operate in the maritime supply chain across more than 30 sub sectors. When Cammell Laird was putting together a bid to build the Type 32 frigates it assembled a 2,000-strong supply chain.
To give just one example, vessels being designed and built today are stuffed to the gills with digital technology and other innovations. While the focus may be on the big shipyards, there is a whole layer of SME innovation underpinning the industry. It is about much more than just steel and rivets.
And, thanks to the work of local industry body, Mersey Maritime, small firms across Liverpool City Region can be more prepared than most to take advantage of a £206 zero carbon innovation fund that was also announced by the Prime Minister during the visit.
In the strategy refresh, the Government talked about developing “the shipyard of the future”. It added: “This will be a modern, efficient shipyard which draws on advanced manufacturing technologies, such as robotics and automation, and is digitally integrated with the broader supply chain.”
At the heart of the technological change is the increasing urgency of the drive towards decarbonisation. The Government has set a target of 2050 to decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy. For maritime, this target was set out in more detail in the Maritime 2050 and the Clean Maritime Plan.
In March 2021, the Department for Transport launched a £23m Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition (CMDC), which aims to accelerate the design and development of zero emission vessels in the UK and support cleaner, greener ports.
It was “significantly oversubscribed” with quality submissions, demonstrating the UK industry’s capabilities and appetite to invest in clean maritime technologies. The Government will extend the CMDC to a multi-year programme.
Building on its success, the Government will further increase our level of ambition by investing £206m to establish a UK Shipping Office (UK-SHORE) for reducing emissions across the maritime sector.
UK-SHORE will manage the implementation of the multi-year CMDC and will work in partnership with industry to tackle supply and demand side barriers, as well as developing infrastructure and consumer confidence in zero emission technologies.
Liverpool City Region is already ahead of the game on this. Mersey Maritime, which represents hundreds of firms in the local marine sector, has set up a project called Innovating Maritime led by Dr Matt Fulton from the University of Liverpool.
Free to members, Innovating Maritime will act as a complimentary bridge for the maritime ecosystem, pointing it towards sources of funding, expert support, and all-important end users, helping drive innovative change within the sector.
Chris Shirling-Rooke, chief executive of Mersey Maritime, said: “There is a significant amount of work that is already taking place to transform our industry into a low carbon and digital powerhouse but what is clear is how companies of all sizes feel confused and bewildered about how they can be part of this transformation.
“Over the past couple of years, we have seen our Technology and Innovation Forum thrive. The part that was missing was the independent expertise to really support businesses, draw down the funding as well as showcase their technology to the tier one companies.”
One of the best examples of local innovation is the Bibby Wavemaster Zero-C project. Bibby Line Group is one of Liverpool’s oldest companies but its Bibby Marine subsidiary is firmly fixed on the future. It is developing a zero carbon offshore support vessel that could revolutionise the shipping sector.
Chief executive Nigel Quinn explained: “We are actually looking at two things – building new vessels that can be flexible enough to be adapted as the technology moves on – and retrofitting our existing vessels so we can keep them in service.
“Obviously we are looking specifically at the offshore vessels that we use but when we get this right we are talking about something that can be used for ships around the world of similar size that do different things. We are creating something that will be transferable.”
Mersey Maritime is also one of the lead partners in the £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub that will be built at Wirral Waters, close to the River Mersey. It will be a dynamic hub of innovation, testing the most advanced low carbon technologies.
Welcoming the National Shipbuilding Strategy refresh, Mersey Maritime called on the local sector to “maximise the opportunity it represents”. It added the Liverpool City Region was “strategically well placed to take a substantial share of the £4bn commitment for new vessels”.
It also welcomed the initial £2million of new funding to set up the Home Shipbuilding Credit Guarantee Scheme (HSCGS), with additional investment, for underwriting the finance of vessel contracts, to be announced in due course.
Its statement added: “Liverpool is one of the most significant maritime cities in the whole of the United Kingdom and has played a major role in the industry across the country for centuries.
“At each point, from the world’s first commercial wet dock opened in 1715 to the iconic role of shipbuilders on the Mersey such as Cammell Laird, this region has demonstrated its ability to lead the way in all aspects of maritime.
“We must seize this opportunity now for this area to play a significant part in the future of shipbuilding for the UK with the 30-year cross-Government pipeline that has now been announced. This refresh work is a once in a generation opportunity to propel the shipbuilding industry forward in the Liverpool City Region.
“Mersey Maritime is full square behind the wider vision for the industry of a globally successful, innovative and sustainable UK shipbuilding enterprise.
“We want to see this iconic maritime region take its full position at the forefront of the technological and environmental innovations driving the sector forward in this most globally competitive field. Our time is now if we will only seize it fully.”