Dutch engineer, entrepreneur and inventor Jan van der Tempel has been announced by the European Patent Office (EPO) as a finalist in the Industry category of the European Inventor Award 2021. Van der Tempel has developed a motion-compensated system, the Ampelmann, for transferring people and cargo between floating vessels and stationary offshore facilities, boosting safety on the high seas.
The European Inventor Award was launched by the EPO in 2006. It honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times in the categories Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement.
More than technological innovation
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 17 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.”
Re-inventing offshore access
An Offshore Wind engineer by training, 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 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.
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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 60 kilometres per hour and waves of up to four metres. 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 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, 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 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.”
From university spin-off to industry leader
Initially 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. Van der Tempel 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 Van der Tempel.
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 2040. 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.
Finals & online voting
The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists through online voting on the EPO website. 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.