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Common Rail: The Way Ahead for Ship Propulsion

Kaspar Aeberli
Director, Marketing & Sales Support, Marine
Wärtsilä Switzerland Ltd, Winterthur

Common-rail fuel injection, made possible by fully-integrated electronic control, is a major milestone in the development
of large marine diesel engines. The combination of common rail and electronic control offers unprecedented flexibility of
operation which opens up further avenues in engine development to meet market requirements for ship propulsion now and
in the future.
The first series-built low-speed engine with electronically-controlled common-rail fuel injection has been in service for
two years with excellent results. Further engines are being ordered by shipowners who recognise that common-rail fuel
injection is a desirable development.
Today common-rail technology provides benefits in smokeless operation at all operating speeds, lower fuel consumption,
reduced maintenance costs and lower steady running speeds for better manoeuvring. Further progress can be expected along
these lines over the coming years.

* This paper is based on papers and presentations at the International Symposium on Combustion Engines and Marine
Engineering (ISCEM 2003), Busan, Korea, 22–24 October 2003, and the 4th International Ship Propulsion Systems
Conference, Manchester, 10–12 November 2003. Statistics are updated to January 2004.

Fig. 1: The first nine-cylinder

Sulzer RT-flex60C engine
during its official shop test at
HSD Engine Co Ltd, Korea.

—1— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Common-rail fuel injection is now a practical proposition
for large, low-speed marine diesel engines. The first such
Sulzer RT-flex engine has been at sea for than two years
with excellent service experience and the system is to
be employed in the most powerful marine engines built
Although common-rail fuel injection is certainly not a
new idea, it has only become truly practical now through
the use of fully-integrated electronic control which
allows full use to be made of the flexibility possible with
common-rail injection.
The traditional camshaft has the considerable
limitation of fixed timing given mechanically by the cams.
Although Sulzer low-speed engines have long had the
benefits of double valve-controlled fuel injection pumps Fig. 3: Supply unit on a 7RT-flex60C engine with the fuel
with variable injection timing (VIT), and a degree of pumps in a Vee-form arrangement on the right and servo oil
variable exhaust valve timing being achieved hydraulically pumps to the left of the gear drive.
in the VEC system, the variation in timing so obtained has [03#039]
been very limited.
The change to electronically-controlled common-rail
systems has been made to ensure that the timing, rate and operated mostly in unison but under certain circumstances
pressure of fuel injection and the exhaust valve operation they are operated separately for optimum combustion
are fully controllable, allowing patterns of operation which performance.
cannot be achieved by purely mechanical systems. The common-rail concept thus provides an ideal basis
The common-rail concept was adopted because it has for the application of a fully-integrated electronic control.
the advantage that the functions of pumping and injection The combined flexibilities of common rail and electronic
control are separated. This allows a straightforward control provide improved low-speed operation, engine
approach to the mechanical and hydraulic aspects of acceleration, balance between cylinders, load control,
the design, with a steady generation of fuel oil supply at and longer times between overhauls. They also ensure
the desired pressure ready for injection. The common- better combustion at all operating speeds and loads,
rail concept also has the unique advantage that it allows giving benefits in lower fuel consumption and lower
the fuel injection valves to be individually controlled. exhaust emissions in terms of both smokeless operation
Usually there are three fuel injection valves in each at all operating speeds and less NOX emissions. Engine
cylinder cover, and in the Sulzer RT-flex engines they are diagnostics are built into the system, improving engine
monitoring and reliability.
Fig. 2: Section of rail unit for a Sulzer RT-flex96C engine. As the common-rail system is built specifically for
The fuel rail is on the left and the servo oil rail is on the right, reliable operation on heavy fuel oil, it detracts nothing
with control units superimposed on both. from the well-established economy of low-speed marine
[03#016] diesel engines but rather opens up new possibilities for
even better economy, ease of operation, reliability, times
between overhauls and lower exhaust emissions.
It is ten years since development of the Sulzer RT-flex
common-rail system began and more than 20 years since
the first tests were made with electronically-controlled fuel
injection in Winterthur, Switzerland.
The early camshaftless systems developed for Sulzer
engines used individual, hydraulically-operated fuel
injection pumps. However the change in injection concept
from the individual, hydraulically-operated fuel injection
pumps to a common-rail system in 1993 was made
because the system with individual pumps did not offer
potential for further technological development despite
it having integral electronic control. Electronic control
was found to be insufficient by itself, a new fuel injection
concept was recognised as essential. Common rail was
seen as the road ahead and it is applied in Sulzer RT-flex
To summarise, common rail is seen to qualify as the

—2— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Fig. 4: Side elevation of the 12-cylinder Sulzer RT-flex96C engine showing the supply unit in the middle and the rail units near the
cylinder tops. The engine is some 22.6m long..

way ahead for the further development of low-speed Fig. 5: Test rig for the common-rail system of the RT-flex96C
marine engines because: engine. An injection control unit (ICU) is mounted on a
• The technical concept is well founded common rail which is of the length for six cylinders. To the left
• Reliability is becoming well proven – first engine of the ICU are the three fuel injection valves for one engine
exceeding 12,000 running hours cylinder.
• More engines are already in service [03#120]
• Sulzer RT-flex engines are available for your projects
today – with powers of 5650–80,080 kW
• Market demand is clear – already confirmed orders for
61 engines
• Benefits available today are worthwhile with the current
• Future potential exists for continuing development

Well-founded technical concept

Compared to the conventional, mechanically-controlled
low-speed two-stroke marine engine, the Sulzer RT-flex
engine is provided with unique features through the fully-
integrated electronic control of fuel injection and exhaust
valve actuation [1]. This makes it possible to replace
various mechanical parts: the camshaft and its gear drive,
the complete fuel injection pump units including the
exhaust valve actuator pumps and reversing servomotors,
and all their related mechanical control gear.
These parts are replaced by four principal elements
in the Sulzer RT-flex system: the rail unit along the side
of the cylinders (Fig. 2), the supply unit on the side of
the engine (Fig. 3), a filter unit for the servo oil, and the
integrated electronic control system.
The common rail is a pipe running the length of the
engine just below the cylinder cover level. Together with
related pipework, it is neatly enclosed with ready access

—3— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Fig. 6: Test rig for a fuel supply pump of the RT-flex96C
engine. To the left of the vertical pump is the fuel collector.
The pump delivers fuel to the common-rail test rig shown in
figure 5.

standard fuel injection valves (Fig. 5). The control units,

using quick-acting Sulzer rail valves, regulate the timing of
fuel injection, control the volume of fuel injected, and set
the shape of the injection pattern. The three fuel injection
valves in each cylinder cover are separately controlled so
that, although they normally act in unison, they can also
be programmed to operate separately as necessary.
The common-rail system is purpose-built for operation
on just the same grades of heavy fuel oil as are already
standard for Sulzer RTA-series engines. For this reason,
the RT-flex system incorporates certain design features not
seen in other common-rail engines using middle-distillate
diesel oils. The key point is that, in the RT-flex system,
the heated heavy fuel oil is kept away from the precision
quick-acting rail valves.
The exhaust valves are operated in much the same way
as in existing Sulzer RTA engines by a hydraulic pushrod
but with the actuating energy now coming from the servo
from above and the side. The common rail provides oil rail. The electronically-controlled actuating unit for
storage volume for the fuel oil, and has provision for each cylinder gives full flexibility for valve opening and
damping pressure waves. There is no need for energy closing patterns. This unit utilises exactly the same Sulzer
storage under gas pressure. The volume of the common- rail valves as are used for controlling fuel injection.
rail system and the supply rate from the fuel supply pumps
are such that the rail pressure is very stable with negligible
pressure drop after each injection. Being proven in service
The common rail is fed with heated fuel oil at the usual Although engine testing of the Sulzer RT-flex system
high pressure, up to 1000 bar, ready for injection. The began in June 1998, the real proof of the capability of the
supply unit has a number of high-pressure pumps running electronically-controlled common-rail system has come
on multi-lobe cams with a speed-increasing gear. The with the first series-built RT-flex engine [2]. Entering
pumps have suction control to regulate the fuel delivery service in September 2001, this engine was built to
volume according to engine requirements. operate using only the electronically-controlled common-
Although the pumps run on a camshaft, it cannot rail system with no alternative. It went to sea as a fully
be compared with the traditional engine camshaft. It is industrialised product, ready for continuous heavy-duty
very short and of much smaller diameter, and is quite commercial operation. It achieved this performance with
differently loaded as there is no sudden, jerk action but very good success.
rather the pump plungers have a steady reciprocating The engine is a Sulzer 6RT-flex58T-B, of 11,275 kW
motion. With multi-lobe cams and the speed-increasing at 93 rev/min, and is installed in the bulk carrier Gypsum
gear drive, each fuel supply pump makes several strokes Centennial. By the end of 2003, it had accumulated more
during each crankshaft revolution. The result is a compact than 12,000 running hours. The service experience of this
supply unit. engine has already been reported [3, 4, 5].
Servo oil for injection control and exhaust valve One key point from the operation of the RT-flex
actuation is provided at a pressure of 200 bar by a number engine has been that the ships’ engineers quickly became
of hydraulic pumps also on the supply unit. They deliver comfortable operating the engine, and were only
to a second common rail alongside the fuel rail. accompanied by a Wärtsilä engineer up to the end of May
For the first engines, the supply unit is arranged low on 2002.
the manifold side but subsequent engines have it higher Throughout its operation, the service experience
on the opposite side. This keeps the engine ‘footprint’ has been very good. Although there were a number of
small so that the engines can be located far aft in ships ‘teething’ problems during the first few months, they
with fine afterbodies. have mostly been remedied or new components are under
Fuel is delivered from the common rail through a development.
separate injection control unit for each engine cylinder to Even when there were problems, in most cases they

—4— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Fig. 7: The bulk carrier Gypsum Centennial, Sulzer Fig. 8: Aframax tanker Sea Lady, Sulzer 6RT-flex58T-B.
6RT-flex58T-B. [03#105]

Fig. 9: Multi-purpose carrier Wladyslaw Orkan, Sulzer Fig. 10: Reefer Carmel Ecofresh, Sulzer 7RT-flex60C.
7RT-flex60C. [04#002]

did not interfere with normal ship operation as they Overall the service experience with these RT-flex
caused either just an alarm signal or the engine to slow engines has been very satisfactory.
down. Some faults were rectified during normal scheduled
engine halts while the majority, concerning common-
rail and electronic components, could be rectified by In demand for newbuildings
briefly slowing the engine and replacing components. Sulzer RT-flex engines have been very well received by
Six unplanned shutdowns occurred in the first couple of shipowners. The research engine and the first series-built
months’ operation, but since then there has only been a engine attracted their interest right from the outset.
single stoppage. By January 2004, a total of 61 Sulzer RT-flex engines
The fact that the whole design of the common-rail had been built or were on order, aggregating 2.26 million
system was made ‘in-house’ proved invaluable when kW (3.08 million bhp), see Table 1.
troubleshooting problems. In-house knowledge allows The concept has therefore been extended to other
quick diagnosis of problems and prompt identification of Sulzer low-speed engine types (Fig. 11). The Sulzer
suitable remedies. RT-flex58T-B and RT-flex60C are now in service. The
By the end of 2003, a total of four ships had been next type to be built will be the largest bore size, the Sulzer
delivered with Sulzer RT-flex engines (Figs. 7 to 10). The RT-flex96C which will also be developed in a 14-cylinder
other three are: version to give 80,080 kW (108,920 bhp) for ‘jumbo’
• The Aframax tanker Sea Lady in Japan entered service container liners. The RT-flex84T-D will be specifically for
in August 2003 with a 6RT-flex58T-B engine ULCCs and VLCCs, and the RT-flex68T-B will also be
• The multi-purpose carrier Wladyslaw Orkan built in included. The smallest RT-flex engine is the new
China was delivered in November 2003 with RT-flex50 currently under development which extends the
a 7RT-flex60C engine range down to 5650 kW (7700 bhp).
• The reefer Carmel Ecofresh, also with a 7RT-flex60C, With the increasing numbers of RT-flex engines being
was delivered from Portugal also in November 2003. ordered, their manufacture is also being extended to more

—5— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

MW 5 10 15 20 30 40 60 80 Speed
RTA48T-B 102–127

RT-flex50 Sulzer RT-flex 99–124

RTA52U-B 110–137

RT-flex58T-B 84–105
Fig. 11: Sulzer low-speed
RTA58T-B marine engine programme
RT-flex60C 91–114 with the RT-flex engines
highlighted. The six Sulzer
RTA62U-B 92–115
RT-flex engine types cover
RT-flex68T-B 75–94
a power range of 5650 to
RTA68T-B 80,080 kW
RTA72U-B 79–99 (7700–108,920 bhp).
RT-flex84T-D 61–76
RTA84C 82–102

RT-flex96C 92–102

factories. So far, they have been, or will be manufactured Table 1: Numbers of Sulzer RT-flex engines delivered or on
in six factories in four countries; namely Wärtsilä’s own order at the end of December 2003.
factory at Trieste, Italy, and five licensees in Korea, Japan
and China PRC. Type Cylinder No. No. Engines
RT-flex96C 12 14
Benefits for shipowners 10 3
The benefits of the electronically-controlled common-rail 8 10
systems of Sulzer RT-flex engines are outlined above in the 7 4
‘Introduction’. Attention here is focused on the particular RT-flex96C 31
aspects of fuel consumption, slow-running behaviour and RT-flex84T-D 7 3
exhaust emissions. RT-flex84T-D 3
Although Sulzer RT-flex engines can be applied to
RT-flex60C 9 3
advantage in any ship types their benefits will carry
7 12
different weight in different ship types according to their
RT-flex60C 15
types of operation and their owners’ priorities.
For example, the very slow running ability and reduced RT-flex58T-B 7 8
part-load fuel consumption are expected to be particularly 6 2
attractive for very large and ultra large crude oil carriers 5 2
(VLCC and ULCC), while their smokeless operation RT-flex58T-B 12
might be highlighted more by liner operators.
Total 61
Fuel consumption flexibility
A key feature of the electronically-controlled common-rail load is kept higher with the common-rail injection system,
system is the complete flexibility allowed in the timing, combustion is sufficiently better to have a beneficial effect
rate and pressure of fuel injection and in exhaust valve on fuel consumption.
operation. This is employed to advantage in the newly The new step is to introduce flexibility into the
introduced feature of ‘fuel consumption flexibility’. choice of fuel consumption curve. Two fuel consumption
At the first stage of development of RT-flex engines, the curves are available as standard for RT-flex engines, the
main objective has been to achieve the same performance new alternative given by Delta Tuning being a lower
standards as are achieved in the mechanical-camshaft curve with reduced BSFC below 90 per cent load (Fig.
engines, particularly with respect to power, speed, fuel 12). In both cases, the RT-flex engines comply with the
consumption, exhaust emissions, cylinder pressures, etc. NOX regulation of Annex VI of the MARPOL 73/78
Thus the curve of brake specific fuel consumption (BSFC) convention, often referred to as the IMO NOX regulation.
of the first RT-flex engines has been the same as with Sulzer RTA engines have always been highly
corresponding RTA engines, or perhaps slightly lower in competitive in fuel consumption right across the load
the part-load region. As the fuel injection pressure at part- range owing to the use of variable injection timing (VIT).

—6— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

RTA engines
Fig. 12: The new, alternative
RT-flex engines: BSFC curve for RT-flex engines
Basic tuning given by Delta Tuning compared
with the original BSFC curves of
Delta Tuning Sulzer RTA and RT-flex engines.
All curves shown are for engines
complying with the IMO NOx
25% 50% 75% 100%

This has been particularly true for the RTA84T engines RT-flex engine with Delta Tuning also complies with the
which since their introduction in 1991 have also had the IMO NOX regulation.
advantage of variable exhaust valve closing (VEC) which The fuel saving is attractive but it would not benefit
further reduces the part-load BSFC. These benefits have all ship types to the same magnitude. It is of greater
already been carried over to the electronically-controlled advantage to those ships which spend a high proportion of
common-rail systems of the RT-flex engines. their time sailing in ballast or at reduced speeds.
The question, of course, arises as to why the BSFC
could not be lowered at all engine loads/speeds. It is Very slow running
technically possible to do so. With RT-flex engines all the Another key advantage of Sulzer RT-flex engines is their
relevant parameters can be continuously varied so that the ability to run stably at very low speeds, lower than engines
engine can follow any specified BSFC curve as engine load with mechanically-controlled injection. They can run
and speed are varied. The key limitation today, however, is without smoke at 10-12 per cent nominal speed.
in the need to comply with the IMO NOX regulation. This ability will be very useful during transits of
Owing to the natural laws of physics and combustion the Suez Canal, or during long port approaches and
chemistry, there is always a trade off between lower fuel river passages. Very low, stable running speeds are also
consumption and greater NOX emissions. At the present advantageous for tankers during lightering operations or
state of technology, if the BSFC curve for an engine when loading at offshore oil fields.
is lowered then there is an increase in NOX emissions. Such slow running has been well confirmed in service
However, the IMO NOX limit is specified as a weighted in the Gypsum Centennial. It is made possible by the
average of NOX emissions measured at certain engine precise control of injection, together with the higher
loads and speeds. Thus it is possible to accept increases in injection pressures achieved at low speed, and the cutting
NOX emissions in some ranges of engine load if there is a out of injectors at low speeds.
compensating reduction in NOX emissions at other engine Cutting out injectors is enabled by the separate control
loads. of individual fuel injection valves (Fig. 13). This feature is
This explains the shape of the new BSFC curve given unique to the Sulzer RT-flex system. Usually the injection
by Delta Tuning. The BSFC is lowered in the mid- and valves operate in unison but, as the engine speed is
low-load range, thereby increasing the NOX emission reduced one injection valve can be cut out and at a lower
levels at those load points, but then has to be increased speed a second injection valve can be cut out. Thus at
at high engine loads (90–100% load) for a compensating minimum speed, the engine runs on all cylinders but with
reduction in NOX levels. The overall result is that an just one injection valve in each cylinder.

Fig. 13: Sulzer RT-flex engines have the unique ability to cut Fig. 14: [02#123]
off individual fuel injectors, here shown schematically. This
feature is used to assure clean combustion for smokeless, stable
running at very low speeds.

Usual operation: Selective cut-out of injection valves

all nozzles Smokeless operation at low speed
in unison

Two nozzles

Single nozzle


—7— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Filter Smoke Number [FSN]

Fig. 15:
0.40 HFO
380 cSt
Smokeless operation
0.35 3% sulphur on heavy fuel oil at all
0.30 0.1% ash speeds was confirmed by
ON OFF Aux. Blower measurements on the first
Sulzer 6RT-flex58T-B
0.20 engine, shown here in
Smoke visibility limit comparison with those
Conventional low-speed engine typical for Sulzer RTA
0.05 [02#010]
6RT-flex58T-B with Common Rail
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
Engine Load [%]

Reducing the number of injection valves in service considerably lower NOX emissions. With common-rail
makes injection of the reduced fuel quantities more injection, a wide variety of injection patterns can be
efficient, especially as the injection pressure is kept up to generated (Fig. 17). The injected quantity of fuel can be
a higher value than in a mechanically-injected engine at divided, for pre-injection, triple injection, etc. The Sulzer
low speeds. If the RT-flex engine then runs for a period RT-flex engine, with its individual fuel valve control, also
in single-injector operation, the electronic control system has the unique ability to individually vary the injection
switches between the three injection valves in a cylinder so timing and sequence between the three fuel injectors in
that the thermal load is equalised around the combustion each cylinder and thus to generate a tailor-made heat
chamber. release.
This arrangement provides more stable operation with In engine tests, this degree of flexibility has proved
better distribution of engine load and thermal loads than useful to reach NOX emissions of 20% below the IMO
if very slow running was to be achieved by cutting out NOX limit with a moderate BSFC increase of 2.3%.
whole cylinders.
High reliability and redundancy
Low exhaust emissions Reliability is crucial for all ship propulsion engines
A clearly visible benefit of RT-flex engines is their whatever the size or type of ship. Though it is especially
smokeless operation at all ship speeds. This was well true for the engines of, for example, large oil tankers with
demonstrated in the Gypsum Centennial (Figs. 15 and 16). their pollution potential, and large container ships with
The superior combustion performance with the common- their high-value cargoes and tight sailing schedules.
rail system is achieved by maintaining the fuel injection Not only has reliability been an important requirement
pressure at the optimum level right across the engine speed in the development of Sulzer RT-flex engines but the
range. In addition, the selective shut-off of single injectors inherent redundancy of the common-rail concept also
and an optimised exhaust valve timing help to keep smoke contributes to ship safety. This is an attribute unique
emissions below the visible limit at very low speeds. among fuel injection systems to the common-rail concept.
The flexibility of the RT-flex engines will also allow The multiple fuel and servo oil supply pumps have

Fig. 16:
Smokeless operation in
practice – the
Gypsum Centennial

—8— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004

Fig. 17: Some of the fuel injection patterns Pre-injection Triple injection Sequential injection
possible with common-rail injection: pre-
injection, triple injection and sequential
injection. Note the sharp beginning and end Needle lift
of the needle lift in all three types of pattern. Injection pressure Cylinder pressure Rail pressure

Sequential injection is unique to RT-flex engines

as the individual fuel injection valves are
separately controlled.

adequate redundancy for the engine to deliver full power investigated might be:
with one fuel pump and one servo oil pump out of action, • Flexibility for further improving fuel consumption and
and a strictly proportional reduction in power should lowering exhaust emissions
further pumps be out of action. High-pressure fuel and • Extendibility, for example to include direct water
servo-oil delivery pipes, and the electronic systems are also injection for reducing NOX emissions
duplicated for redundancy which extends to the separate • Making engines self-adapting, with built-in feedback
control of individual fuel injection valves. control for longer times between overhauls, varying fuel
quality, varying waste heat recovery demand, varying
Future potential ambient conditions, complying with local emissions
regulations, etc.
The common-rail systems incorporated in Sulzer RT-flex
engines give the best potential for the future development
Not all developments will be restricted to newbuildings
of low-speed marine engines. The reasons can be
or require additional hardware. Sulzer RT-flex engines
summarised as:
have the benefit that new operational features can be
• Simplest solutions are given by common rail for fuel
added by simply updating the system software.
injection and exhaust valves
• Free choice for all parameters for fuel injection and
exhaust valves Conclusion
• Precise volumetric fuel injection control From all the experience so far, Sulzer RT-flex engines are
• Separate control of individual fuel injection valves clearly a major step forward in the technology of large
– unique to RT-flex marine diesel engines. The combination of common-rail
• Separation of functions – delivery is handled at the concepts and fully-integrated electronic control is the
supply unit and control is locally at each cylinder only solution giving the degree of flexibility, together with
– unique to RT-flex reliability and safety, required to meet the challenges in
• No external pressure storage or damping is needed future marine engine applications in terms of emissions
– unique to RT-flex control, optimised fuel consumption, insensitivity to fuel
• Stable pressure level in common rail quality, ease of use, operational flexibility, etc.
• Separation of heated fuel oil from precision parts
– ideal for heavy fuel oil
• In-house design, with standardisation for different bore
• Pumping power minimised through suction pressure References
control and rail pressure regulation 1. Stefan Fankhauser and Klaus Heim, ‘The Sulzer
• Minimised pumping volume RT-flex: Launching the era of common rail on low-
• Redundancy for reliability and safety speed engines’, CIMAC 2001, Hamburg.
• Built-in monitoring 2. Stefan Fankhauser, ‘World’s first common-rail low-
• Quick and easy maintenance. speed engine goes to sea’, Wärtsilä, Marine News,
No.3-2001, pp12–15.
To put it simply, our experience with various fuel 3. Kaspar Aeberli and John McMillan, ‘Common Rail
injection and valve operating systems – camshaft-operated, at Sea: The Sulzer RT-flex engine’, The Motor Ship
hydraulically-operated and common rail – has confirmed Marine Propulsion Conference 2002, Copenhagen.
that electronic control alone is not sufficient. It needs 4. Huber, Konrad and Beat Güttinger, ‘First year of
to be combined with common rail for progress as, for service successful for first Sulzer RT-flex’, Wärtsilä,
example, in Sulzer RT-flex engines. Marine News, No.1-2003, pp4–8.
It is clear, however, that the direction for future 5. Kaspar Aeberli, ‘Experience with Sulzer Common-
engine developments will need to match shipowners’ Rail Engines’, The Motor Ship Marine Propulsion
requirements. Some of the possible avenues to be Conference 2003, Hamburg.
—9— © Wärtsilä Corporation, January 2004