On the topic of ‘Shipbuilding’
Today I’m writing about a topic that is near and dear to my world, Shipbuilding. I am spurred on by a recent episode of PBS’s ‘Nova’ which I had on PVR (because I like to watch when I feel like watching). The episode I’m referring to was entitled “Ultimate Cruiseship” and dealt with the design, construction and delivery of the vessel ‘The Seven Seas Explorer’. It is probably the best ‘high level’ documentary I’ve seen regarding the process of ship delivery. It also provides a very good answer to a question I’ve heard many times over the years: “What do you do?”
Although this documentary chronicles the birth of a cruise ship, one of the vessels I have not actually worked on (unless of course one takes in account of commercial ferries), the processes and considerations are the same. The show dealt with the casting of the propellers, the problems of vibration, the complexities of sub assembly construction, the questions of Naval Architecture, weight issues, materials selection, and many other aspects of the work. Also discussed are the logistics of having the vessel’s modules built and launched in varied locations, then mated together to create the final hull, the total ship. Nearly every step along the process is covered in this documentary.
As I watched this I couldn’t help but think how well organized and executed the project was handled. It was obvious that the design was being directed and overseen by a team of Naval Architects and other professional shipbuilders that knew the importance of being ‘hands on’ throughout the whole project. Every step of the way the team was engaged and issues were dealt with then resolved.
I got to thinking about jobs I’ve worked on in the past. Some were well organized while others were complete chaos. The most important feature of all these jobs is that at the end of the day, a vessel was delivered. It is relatively rare for a ship, once started to not be completed, in some way (perhaps not to the original design, but completed none the less). So, why is it that some projects are successes while others are costly, problematic and not so much of a success? There is no one single answer but I can weigh in with some of the reasons I’ve experienced in my career.
I’m going to forgo the obvious point that there must be a Mission Statement established for the vessel, a good preliminary design to begin with, and deal instead with the options open to the Project Management and Design Teams. In recent years many vessels are being designed and constructed on contract in geographic areas that provide lower cost labour resources (for instance, India, China, Southeast Asia & Romania, to name only a few). This line of action has in many instances led to delivery of substandard construction with any number of issues regarding materials, design, welding, hardware and so on. That outcome has led to a school of thinking purporting that vessels built in these locations are substandard because of where they are built.
I argue that this is not necessarily the case. I agree that it is true many of the products coming from ‘low cost labour’ locations are not up to standards generally in use throughout most of the more developed world, but this is not a function of the location. It is a direct result of the failure of the project execution plan. These locations generally have access to very talented, energetic and dedicated resources, with loyalty to employers not seen in other places. What they lack is ‘Guidance and Oversight’. I contend that if one is to have a vessel designed and or built in low cost regions the onus is on the owner to ensure that there is from day one, a single person or team that is thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the vessel’s mission and design. This entity must also have authority to direct and halt work and have the full support of the owner. If those parameters are established, and adhered to, I believe a successful project is a likely outcome.
The makeup of this guidance and oversight team, commonly referred to as the ‘Client’s Representatives’ should not be someone that has not been directly involved with the determination of the design of the vessel. As an example, in some cases a local government has established a need for a rejuvenation of its ferry fleet (for instance) the wheels of bureaucracy [SW1] go to work and source a design house and shipyard with a cost that is acceptable. The deal is made, the government’s team agrees to have the work done with the builder, the money is put in place then…the bureaucrats go home. The very real danger here is that the taxpayer’s money is now in the control of a ‘hands off’ group of uninvolved bureaucrats and an eager builder following any number of their own agendas. It should come as no surprise when the vessel is over budget and the project is plagued with problems. It is absolutely necessary to have knowledgeable and experienced oversight at all offices and construction sites. There can be no substitute for technical, and practical expertise.
My discussion here is singling out the selection of low cost resources in specific geopolitical regions but this is not to be taken in isolation. The same dangers exist in the most technologically developed countries in the world. Without a strong leadership with actual knowledge of how to execute the task at hand, the project is less likely to be a success, and this is not a reflection on the quality of work being done by the workforce. It is a reflection, and a direct result of the lack of quality work being done by the Project Management.