Long read: Technology’s role in preparing for a post COVID-19 future

Ship connectivity. Credit: Getty Images

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is causing unprecedented disruption to industries around the world, and shipping is no exception. Yet amid the challenges, many forward-thinking companies are uncovering silver linings: using the constraints of the crisis to improve communications and employee engagement, while learning to work more flexibly.

“In this situation we need to look at what we can do with the technologies available to us, not focus on what we can’t do … this gives us an opportunity to look at new ways of working,” said Olav Nortun, CEO Thome ship management.

Nortun stressed that the shipping industry needs to use this time to look at its internal workings and find solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Just like many organisations seeking to improve employee engagement and communication, Nortun said Thome is utilising Microsoft Teams to get a better feel for the situation on board. “We are setting up Teams meetings onboard the vessels that have the satellite capacity … to communicate better with crew and see them and see how they are onboard.”

Optimarin, a ballast water treatment systems (BWTS) manufacturer, has also been looking at its existing technologies and products, and noticed an uptick in crew logins to its online training programmes for the BWTS installed onboard their vessels during the COVID-19 crisis of.

Previously, according to Leiv Kallestad, CEO Optimarin, the crew would experience a higher number of problems in the first six months of an installation, as they wouldn’t fully understand the functionality. Following the creation of e-learning online tools, a targeted US Coast Guard campaign at Post State Control, and pandemic restrictions, “crews are up and running much faster than in the past”.

Crew competitions and VR

As crew face extended time onboard, with less ability for shore leave, many are turning to online training to pass the time. This has also been the case for Optimarin’s staff. Kallested said there has been more demand for continued learning. “We are also training our service engineers via Skype, which was more successful than we thought in the beginning,” he noted.

In reaction to the training constraints imposed by the pandemic, the company is also developing Virtual Reality (VR) tools to provide an enhanced learning experience on how to use the BWTS system. Tore Andersen, executive vice president of sales and marketing, Optimarin, expects the tool to be ready within the next 12 months. “We have improved our e-learning tools immensely, not only are they useful they are fun too,” he said.

Nortun said increased crew engagement is high on the agenda to ensure that crew stay healthy and feel less isolated. He took inspiration from an app launched by the Singapore government, providing an emotional and psychological support helpline for its citizens. Nortun stressed that the same technology must be put in place for crew.

Helplines such as charity ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp have existed before the COVID-19 outbreak and are seeing a rise in calls from seafarers globally. Meanwhile, industry initiatives are underway to provide extra support for crew, including a dedicated COVID-19 helpline launched this week by Sailor’s Society.

For his part, Nortun is launching new weekly competitions for crew onboard Thome vessels. There will be two types, one for individuals to enter and one where the whole crew of a vessel can compete to win a monetary contribution to the vessel fund. The grand prize for an individual crew member is USD500, with two runner up prizes of USD250 each. For a vessel or team contest the prize is USD700 and USD300 for the two runner up teams. With an overall aim to increase crew engagement and safety, crew members are invited to suggest the best way of doing inspections; best workout onboard; best effort in maintaining crew preparedness. Nortun said that such winning ideas may even become policy and could be implemented fleet-wide.

Many expect that COVID-19 will be a catalyst for new ways of working far after the pandemic has ended. Despite the expected lifting of travel bans in the future, Nortun said he doesn’t think that marine superintendents will be able to travel as easily as they were previously. “We looked at Class societies carrying out remote surveys and thought, why can’t we do that ourselves?” Thome is taking this opportunity to consult industry bodies, look at the existing inspection technology, consult start-ups and other industry bodies to be able to carry out their own remote internal audits in the future.

Retrofit wave

Andersen predicts that the pandemic will also influence the retrofit market. For 2020, and the following years, he thinks the market won’t have the same peak as put forward by the different classification societies in 2019. “The retrofit wave will be flatter but longer, as owners will have to juggle dockings and look at their newbuild programme and decide whether to take on new investments,” said Andersen.

Further, the demand for retrofitting will depend on the post COVID-19 market; according to IHS Markit data, 2018 was a peak year for tanker scrapping including relatively new vessels due to high fuel prices,

“Now we have low oil prices, which may mean ship owners will extend the life of their ships and the retrofit wave will be extended,” said Andersen.

“On the other hand, we might see the worldwide economy contracting so much that scrapping will increase and no newbuilds will happen, so then there will be a contraction of the retrofit market, either way we have to be prepared for both scenarios.”

The current restrictions of COVID-19, however, are all too real; both representatives from Thome and Optimarin agree that the movement of personnel is an ongoing challenge. Kallestad acknowledged that due to government travel restrictions, Optimarin has not been able to send their service engineers to their hub in Asia. However, the impact on their workload and supply chain appears to have been minimal with suppliers only closed for a couple of weeks before getting up and running again. “It’s surprising how well it’s working, our central logistic centre in Luxemburg is open for business and our spare parts operations in Norway is 100% up and running,” said Kallestad.

Flexibility is key to navigating the constantly changing COVID-19 situation. Kallestad explained that the main issues Optimarin continues to face is on the commissioning and service jobs side; when the Chinese yards closed the Turkish yards became full and operations halted. Later it was the opposite, when the Chinese yards re-opened the Turkish, Greek, American yards closed. “We have to juggle these commissioning and service jobs, but again we have service engineers and partners in most of the main shipping hubs and so can carry out these works,” said Kallestad.

The issues are similar with crew changes, Nortun cited a recent example where Thome carried out a crew change in Houston, where they took over a vessel: “We spent a long time trying to work out where and how we can do the crew changes … It is possible in some places, which shows a small positive side, but the challenge is on such a large scale.”

Flexible working practices and utilising technology in new ways will need to continue in a post COVID-19 world to ensure shipping stays afloat. Andersen noted that Optimarin is looking at new long-term applications of its technologies, and how it can fit into new markets such as fish farming and hull cleaning.  

What the future will hold once the pandemic is over is unclear, however, innovation and flexibility will be the name of the game for shipping firms hoping to survive through and beyond these challenging times.