Engineering safety on the high seas: Jan van der Tempel named European Inventor Award 2021 finalist
The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Dutch engineer, entrepreneur and inventor Jan van der Tempel has been named as a finalist in the Industry category of the European Inventor Award 2021. He has developed a motion-compensated system for transferring people and cargo between floating vessels and stationary offshore facilities, boosting safety on the high seas.
Mr Van der Tempel commercialised his invention by founding a university spin-off which he has grown into a company that now operates motion-compensated offshore access systems and services all over the world. Today his technology is used in over 65 such systems worldwide, and has successfully transferred over six million offshore workers and seventeen million kilograms of cargo worldwide to date.
“Van der Tempel has not only developed innovative technical solutions for the offshore industry. He has increased safety for the people who work in this sector, improved efficiency and reduced costs for operators”, says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the names of European Inventor Award 2021 finalists. “The patent system supports inventors like Jan van der Tempel. By combining technical innovation with effective legal protection, he has grown his company into a global leader in the offshore transfer sector.” The winners of the 2021 edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony starting at 19:00 CEST 17 June which has this year been reimagined as a digital event for a global audience.
Boarding an offshore facility such as a wind turbine or an oil platform from a ship can be challenging due to the vessel’s motion relative to the stationary structure. Waves and ships behave chaotically, which makes offshore access risky. And unstable weather further can complicate matters, often leading to the cancellation of transfers altogether which costs offshore facilities operators time and money. An Offshore Wind engineer by training, Mr Van der Tempel came up with the concept for his stable gangway system during an offshore wind conference in Berlin – which is why the technology called the Ampelmann after the iconic figures used on Berlin’s pedestrian crossing lights (Ampelmann means ‘traffic light man’). Van der Tempel imagined a form of inverted flight simulator on vessels; instead of simulating movement to correspond to computer-generated visuals in a stationary setting, he focussed on technology that would generate stability in a turbulent environment. This idea evolved into Mr Van der Tempel’s transfer system. It functions like a boarding ramp joining an aeroplane to an airport gate, so that workers can ‘walk to work’ and supplies can be easily transported, even in hazardous weather conditions.
Van der Tempel’s technology works by sensing and monitoring the ship’s movement. A shoebox-sized motion sensor connected to a powerful computer system is installed on the ship to measure movement accurately and rapidly. This data is fed to six hydraulic cylinders found in the base section of the platform, which instantaneously adjust their heights to compensate for any motion. In this way, even when the ship is rocked by waves and wind, the upper platform remains stationary and provides a safe connection to the offshore facility. The platform can be installed on any ship or floating structure in about eight hours and is able to operate in wind speeds of up to 60km per hour and waves of up to 4m. This means fewer cancellations due to bad weather and less need for expensive and potentially risky helicopter transfers, which also require staff to receive specialised safety training. Additionally, the system foresees a back-up for each component, and in the case of system failure, operations will continue for up to one minute until shut down, providing enough time for personnel to get to safety. According to Mr Van der Tempel, offshore personnel walk to work as easily as crossing the street.
Following the success of the prototype he created at TU Delft, Mr Van der Tempel turned to the patent system to protect his invention. He was granted a first European patent in 2012 and a second one in 2014. “Our solution is the only one with cylinders that work in six directions, achieving a completely stationary point with just milliseconds of delay”, says Mr Van der Tempel. “The patent ensured the protection of that concept which gave us, as a company, a huge advantage in the market over competitors. It’s enabled us to grow, to win the trust of the customers, and to make our company what it is today.” Initially Mr Van der Tempel planned only to develop the technology and subsequently identify a company to build and operate it. However, unable to find a company interested or able to fully grasp the commercial potential of the invention, he eventually decided to develop his own business through an incubator associated with TU Delft. He founded Ampelmann Operations in 2007, which – in just under ten years – became a major global player in the offshore access market. As much of the development took place within the incubator, scaling up the invention required relatively low capital expenditure. Loans from the Dutch government were secured, but large external investments were not required. Ampelmann was able to generate its own cash flow almost immediately, which helped the company to grow quickly, doubling in size every year in the first six years, says Mr Van der Tempel. Today, his company operates over 65 motion-compensated offshore access systems worldwide.
While most Ampelmann Operations projects are in the oil and gas industry today, the company also has a strong track record working for offshore wind facilities, a sector projected to expand significantly by 2050. Turbine operation and maintenance costs constitute the most significant spend for companies in the sector, including revenue lost due to delays and difficulties in repairing offshore turbines. The Ampelmann can reduce these costs and, with the global offshore wind operation and maintenance market expected to grow by 17% to over EUR 11 billion by 2028, the company is well placed to capitalise on this shift to renewable energy sources.