Technician shortage hits ballast treatment and scrubbers

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton
ShipInsight

20 November 2018


There is a shortage of technical expertise to cope with the growth in demand for ballast water management system (BWMS) and scrubber installations, executives involved in these sectors warned.

Taking part, along with ShipInsight, in a round-table discussion in London earlier this month (8 November) Tore Andersen, chief executive of the BWMS maker Optimarin, said the company’s order intake for the first 10 months of this year was treble that for the whole of 2017. “We have finally found out that owners are waking up,” he said.

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But although there are enough manufacturers to meet demand, there is a shortage of technical installation specialists, he said. It is electricians in particular that are in demand, which marks a change from when Optimarin first started installing BWMSs. Then, “we were looking for mechanical [technicians] who could do some electrical [work]. Now it is totally opposite,” he said. “It’s the electrical part and automation that’s difficult [to cover].”

Optimarin works closely with the maritime services company Goltens, in particular its Green Technologies division, which specialises in BWMS and scrubber installations. Speaking at the same event, Goltens Green Technologies’ manager for engineering and business development Willem Visscher said that the company had anticipated the boom and had been recruiting and training additional technicians around the world.

It can take up to a year to train someone with no previous experience to be able to install equipment on board a ship, he said. “They have to know what to do and they have to be very precise and accurate.”

Classification societies face a similar need to train staff to meet the growing demand for their services for BWMS and scrubber installations, suggested Per Holmvang, environmental technology advisor at DNV GL. It is providing continuous training for staff but has the benefit of being able to move people around the organisation.

Asked by ShipInsight whether that policy deprived other departments of expertise, he said that at present “we have less work to do on offshore classification.” Staff in that section have similar experience to those in its maritime teams so “we are taking people from offshore to maritime. They are highly skilled and will be trained to handle these systems as well,” he said. He also pointed out that BWMS- and scrubber-related work requires a range of disciplines so colleagues in other departments, such as those that work on control systems or have fire-related expertise, are also involved in these projects.

Also taking part in the discussion was Anna Ziou, policy director on safety and the environment at the UK Chamber of Shipping. She was concerned that organisations will set a limit on the number of additional technicians recruited in anticipation of the initial demand for retrofits falling away after two or three years. But Mr Visscher saw Goltens’ investment in recruitment as more long-term.

He agreed that there is currently a spike in installations but suggested that contracts for BWMSs and scrubbers would continue for up to eight years, by when “we will have done the retrofits and the retrofits of the retrofits.” Beyond that, he is confident that there will be further work to address future environmental requirements.

While the supply and service side of the industry is gearing up to meet demand for installations, shipowners must allow time to plan, the executives warned. For BWMS installations, for example, Mr Andersen recommended starting to plan an installation nine months before it is needed. Although Optimarin offers a ‘fast track’ service offering delivery within eight weeks for a premium price, he said that if every customer asked for their project to be fast tracked, that would not be possible. “Then we would have a bottleneck,” he said.

Ms Ziou mentioned two surveys that the chamber had made of its members: one exploring their progress on BWMS installations and one asking about their approaches to the 2020 sulphur cap.

More than half those that took part in the survey have installed a BWMS on at least one of their vessels and the chamber asked those who had not yet installed systems why they were waiting. There were a range of responses, she said, mentioning in particular that, for some owners, US Coast Guard type-approval for their preferred system is a critical factor.

A small number of owners offered another reason: they were waiting for BWMS prices to fall. Their logic, Ms Ziou said, is that once the initial installation peak has passed, some of the many manufacturers will find it hard to find customers as the final 2024 deadline nears, prompting price falls.

Mr Andersen confirmed that current prices are more than they have been during the past three or four years, during which prices have been reduced by as much as 25%. “We have been so hungry for orders that we haven’t been able to bring this up,” he said. “But now we can be more strict.” In fact, he added, “if [shipowners] don’t order this week, the price will go up again, and that’s not a joke.” He predicted that prices could rise by up to 5% “when we start getting enough orders to feel better.”

As for the chamber’s members’ reaction to the sulphur cap, 90% of those that responded said they had already decided on their approach to the new requirements and the other 10% are in final discussions before making a decision. Most will use compliant fuel but about 40% will use scrubbers, Ms Ziou said, some of them fitting the devices on all their ships. Nonetheless, all respondents plan to use compliant fuel on at least one vessel in their fleets, she said.

Those that will be using scrubbers were evenly split between fitting open loop and hybrid units, which can also operate in a closed-loop mode; none indicated that they would fit closed-loop scrubbers.

Of those that have already fitted scrubbers, half of them said they had encountered technical difficulties with their installations, “so that’s something for owners to bear in mind if they are going to install scrubbers,” Ms Ziou said.

See also ShipInsight’s previous report from this round table meeting.