December 15, 2011

Coming up: shipping's hunt for green crews

The last thirty years have seen a revolution in the wheelhouse. The next thirty, I suspect, will change our engine rooms forever. However, this change will be more complicated, I think, and will require a lot more preparedness and considerably better management of resources than shipping seems to be capable of. I also suspect that the calibre, certification and training of our engineers will be called into question when this revolution takes place- as happened in the wheelhouse revolution, with question marks raised about the competence of deck officers.

Before the eighties, wheelhouse equipment was basic and often unreliable. A weak radar, a stuttering 2182 receiver, often manual steering, an inaccurate DF and a cranky VHF just about covered everything at a watch keeper's disposal. A ship with Loran was considered advanced. The introduction of new navigational equipment- advanced Radars, ARPA- even reliable VHFs- was followed by the SatNav first and then the GPS. Later we saw GMDSS systems and satellite linked computer terminals.

Each of these developments- as with the AIS later, and now, ECDIS- was accompanied by training that was usually poorly thought out, improperly planned and implemented- and, in the end, substandard. Even so, training needed to cover only the regulatory and operational aspects of bridge equipment- repair or maintenance was largely beyond a ship's scope. Even today, repair of bridge equipment is usually a replacement of PCBs - or that of the entire unit. 

The results of the bridge revolution have been pretty bleak as far as competence goes: two decades or so after ARPA was first introduced, large numbers of our certified officers are still unable to properly interpret ARPA findings, understand the system's limitations or even operate a radar optimally or properly. Large numbers of our officers, used to plotting GPS positions mechanically, seem unaware of the basic corrections that need to be applied before plotting a GPS readout on a Mercator chart. All have done GMDSS courses, but many- even most- are effectively GMDSS illiterate. Shipping has not shown itself to be very good at managing competency during technological change, I am afraid.

I am not trying to say that engine rooms of merchant ships have not seen technological advancement; of course they have. Much new equipment has been added. Advanced control and automation systems, shaft generators, bow thrusters, new MARPOL related OWS equipment, fresh water generators and incinerators are just a few examples. Efficiencies of marine engines, control systems and auxillary machinery have undergone much innovation. Nonetheless- and this is what I am saying- the basic means of propulsion has remained the conventional main engine, and advancements here have been innovative, not revolutionary. That revolution will come soon, I believe. I believe that we are at the cusp of a revolution in marine propulsion today.

The process may have already begun and will only accelerate exponentially with time. Concerns for the environment and regulatory changes may have started the movement away from fossil fuels, but more and more shipowners will realise that the cost savings of alternate energy- wind, solar or whatever else- are enormous, and will make the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. Natural gas is being touted as the next big thing, but I think that- longer term- the use of LNG for propulsion will be intermediary or supplementary at best. In any case, we are going to see, in the near future, more and more ships with dual fuel engines, skysails, solar cells and massive power UPS banks. Or technologies we have not even thought of yet.

There is no if here; it is just a question of when. I for one think that this will happen sooner rather than later, with environmental and cost advantages driving the revolution. I also think that shipowners who do not change to cleaner and cheaper technologies will be found out in the market, unable to compete with those who do.

All of which brings me to the million dollar questions: from where will we get the seamen and officers to operate and maintain this new equipment? How and when will changes to competency syllabi be introduced? Who will train crews in new- maybe even one off- technology? Where is the thought process to do so? Where are the resources?

The propulsion revolution will be more complicated for the main reason that- unlike the wheelhouse revolution that we managed badly anyway- it will not be enough for crews to know how to operate the machinery; they should be able to repair it on the run too, or at least until they make it to the next port. The thing is that these new systems will be, well, new. They will also be more complex and automated. Operating them properly will require greater thinking and lesser hammer and spanner banging. Repairing these new systems will require an even greater understanding. 

We do not have these crews to do this today, so- at some stage- shipping will have to start producing them. The first problem, when we start to do so, will be an old one- the often substandard calibre of fresh intake. As an example, it is hard to imagine that our officers can master new technology easily when their basic arithmetic and science skills are highly suspect. 

The second problem is proper training. Examination issues aside (competency paperwork will follow the market, I think), the second problem is easier, in a way, because it is a simple question of resources. As the deluge of maritime educational institutes shows, resources are not the problem. This time around, however, the industry has to find a way to make training effective and pertinent; our failures during the wheelhouse revolution should help us identify what all we did wrong. 

We need to start thinking out how to do this soon, I think; we probably have a couple of years to walk through the process and get things moving. Don't take too long, though; I am willing to wager that countries that first get their ducks in a row here- and execute new-technology training professionally- will steal a near unassailable lead over those that dither. The thing to remember is that everybody is starting from scratch here. Traditional supply countries like India and the Philippines can hardly afford to take things for granted, especially since their MET systems are in a bit of a mess anyway.  

In any case, both these countries have no research and development capabilities in green technologies to speak of; they remain, at best, body-shopping geographies for conventional shipping. Europe does have those capabilities, so imagine what will happen if a significantly greater number of Europeans come out to sea- a real possibility in these tough economic times. Imagine what will happen if China decides to put a billion dollars- in its usually single minded way- behind a research project into green maritime technologies that will also train a new breed of officers and crews for the future. 

These threats are real, and so are the opportunities. There is still time, but the planning has to start soon and execution must follow. Countries that continue with a business as usual philosophy will fall by the wayside in the race for green crews, because the future will be here sooner than they think.

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