What should be on show at SMM

Years ago, a young Chinese colleague summed up Russia – “Russia can sell you anything, except what you what you want. Nuclear missile – no problem. Toothbrush – no chance!”

He qualified this by saying that he had in fact bought something he wanted in Russia – a pair of seriously good ice skates. But that was it.

SMM is the showplace for marine technology in general, and much of it meets my young friend’s definition – everything, except what you want. The exhibits fall into two groups. In the first are the makers of well proven bits of kit, who give the impression that they are only there for the beer, with stands displaying an unnaturally shiny specimen of the widget for which they are known – a pump rotor, for example – and a handful of people on the stand looking around for their mates. They know their widget is wanted and they know who will be buying it.

Before passing over these deserving people, a word of caution. It often happens in our industry that the makers of a well regarded widget – it might be a medium speed diesel engine, or an exhaust gas economiser, or a steering gear, decide to make it bigger and better and more efficient by doing more of the same, to the point where the new improved widget cracks its bedplate, or catches fire, because it has been asked to do too much… Beware of the New Improved Version – it will be the one under the spotlight on the stand.

In the other group, with shinier stands, some even adorned with comely young persons, are the makers of technological solutions in search of a problem.

One of the problems with, in particular, maritime information technology, is that it offers a standing temptation to do something because it can be done, not because half the market wants it done.

The unmanned ship can be done, but hardly anyone wants one. Free internet access across the oceans of the world is something that everyone wants, and nobody is doing it.

Three dimensional printing of some spare parts is about to be offered, but will that really be cheaper than supplying and delivering a conventionally made, class approved, spare part? Really? Wouldn’t we rather have stuff that is easy to maintain and which seldom needs spares?

What would we really like?

An end to fossil fuels, for sure. Paints that last even longer and are even easier to apply, including non-poisonous, non-leaching, antifouling paints, so ships could last a lifetime without drydocking.

An end to water ballast? A system of loading and discharging bulk cargoes that does not involve grabs and bulldozers?

We would really like a means of getting containers into and out of small ships and onto and off trucks at really small ports, including at NAABSA berths, cheaply and quickly.

The common thread joining these suggestions is ‘lower energy usage’ in going about our daily task of moving other people’s stuff from A to B by water, but I have another list as well; a more specific IT list. Let’s see what ‘paperwork’ can actually be eliminated from the routines of our business – from bills of lading to ship’s papers to crew travel. That’s just a matter of reliable databases – surely we can have that?

How about some safety improvements? Why don’t we have enclosed spaces that tell you what the atmosphere is like inside them all the time? Why don’t we have freefall lifeboats that can be dropped for practice without a palaver, again and again? Why don’t we have systems that tell us in real time that the container of ‘harmless’ washing powder in Bay 44 and which actually contains bleaching agents and is about to cook off is showing a rise in temperature and was shipped by Lying Bastards Inc. whose managing director’s mobile phone number is…

So much for the wish list. Enjoy the show, and remember that the person who will sell you the widget that you will really, really regret buying isn’t the dollybird in the short skirt; it’s the grizzled old veteran at the far end of the hall offering the further improved version.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.
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