MarineLink’s Jack Brabban argues today for a significant overhaul in ship operations.
Superintendents have a critical role in shipping. Oddly, in an era of squeezed margins and ever rising costs it’s a role that rarely comes under scrutiny.
Typically, the ‘super’ is a vessel’s primary shoreside contact, the first to be called when a problem occurs, the go-to guys for many issues – cargo, class, HSEQ, budget management, vessel performance, etc.
Most marine and technical superintendents come from a small pool – experienced masters or chief engineers with a minimum of five years in-rank experience – primarily because someone with this background is best suited to help vessels in trouble.
Superintendents are rarely younger than 40 – they are unlikely to have enough experience. And, despite the wealth of experience they gain, are far less likely to find employment around their mid-50’s, making a superintendent’s useful working life around 15-years.
Superintendents are an expensive resource. Average salaries are relatively high (a senior superintendent in Singapore or Hong Kong can earn up to $10,000 a month) and their salaries make up a significant chunk of the overhead of most shipowners or managers.
So why, if superintendents are so valuable, is 65-75% of their time being wasted doing ‘generic’ tasks that could effectively be done by less experienced, and less costly staff?
Only 25-35% of a superintendent’s time is spent doing work for which they’re primarily recruited – inspections, audits, dry-docking and dealing with unexpected problems (their key tasks).
We pay superintendents for their expertise yet seem quite happy to have them waste their time doing work that’s below their pay grade, waiting for problems to occur. Shipowners and managers waste millions of dollars every year because of this.
Despite impressive advancements in the maritime industry, the way we run vessels has hardly changed over the last 30-40 years. It’s about time the superintendent’s role was examined to identify better ways of utilising their expertise, as these figures suggest considerable potential for improvement, particularly cost savings.
Fewer superintendents would be needed if they focused only on key tasks – up to 70% fewer if their time could be fully optimised.
A superintendent’s generic tasks are still important to vessel operations so these need to be reassigned however, re-organising vessel operations using a task-based approach can not only improve consistency of this work but also increase efficiency. Managing the PMS system is a good example, where a specialist takes over this task but for the entire fleet, rather than superintendents being responsible for the PMS on their own vessels. This approach has been adopted successfully by several owners and managers already, and there is no reason why other generic tasks done by superintendents could not be re-organised in the same way.
Probably the most significant barrier preventing individual owners or managers from reducing superintendent numbers is the rapid burn-out of remaining superintendents, as they will inevitably spend most of their time on the road. Part of the problem is that superintendents work occurs unevenly over time such that matching the number superintendents to the work while targeting efficiency is very difficult.
This problem would evaporate entirely if an on-demand superintendent ‘service’ existed, enabling owners and managers without in-house superintendents to engage superintendent expertise only when and where they required it.
Radical? Perhaps, but there are already some precedents.
- Using independent superintendents for ship inspections, audits or managing DD projects is not uncommon, particularly when a fleet manager’s own superintendents are busy.
- Class societies provide an on-call service to many owners on a wide range of vessel types from surveyors located across the world. The expertise of experienced superintendents could be delivered in a similar way to the same clients.
- The superintendent’s on-call role can be replicated using a modified IT helpdesk concept – manned by experienced superintendents, available 24/7/365, providing vessels with a single point of contact for assistance or advice.
This ‘Virtual Superintendent’ service, consisting of a ‘Maritime Helpdesk’, supported by locally based marine and technical superintendents can provide an on-demand superintendent service that owners or managers can access where and when they require it. Crucially, clients would only pay for the expertise when it was needed it and at pre-agreed rates based on fleet size.
This service offers substantial benefits over the current ship management model; significant cost savings; simpler and less costly fleet expansion/contraction; managing concurrent problems on multiple vessels without effecting operations on the rest of the fleet.
But how can superintendents without experience of my type of vessel possibly help those vessels?
Vessels may appear different, but their machinery, systems and structures are surprisingly similar. All vessels have engines, generators, steering gear, radar, safety systems, winches, pumps, tanks, etc. More importantly, similar problems occur on all vessel types and for most issues the type of vessel is irrelevant – MAN or Wartsila don’t have “chemical tanker” specialists waiting to deal with engine problems only on chemical tankers!
It’s not that vessel type is unimportant, its simply that type-specific problems tend to occur less frequently than the common problems that affect all vessel types.
The ‘Virtual Superintendent’ service will have staff with extensive expertise of every type of vessel supported by the service; if any on-call superintendent is unable to help with a specific issue the entire organisation is available to assist. We call this ‘Maritime Triage’ and it’s the same process used in hospital emergency rooms, where triage nurses assess each patient according to the urgency and/or the nature of the problem, calling on whatever specialist expertise is required.
The goal is to identify the optimum solution for each problem on each vessel in every circumstance, with the client (typically a fleet manager) directing all decision-making throughout the process.