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In ensuring the safe conduct of the ship and the safe and timely delivery of its cargo the technical operation of a ship is as important as its navigation. The machinery and systems are what makes the ship work, and it is the engineers, both ashore and afloat, who make sure that it works efficiently, effectively and in a manner acceptable to the crew.
Years ago, when ships were less complex, engineers were more or less left to ‘get on with the job’. If something needed fixing, the chief engineer and his team would set about solving the problem using their combined knowledge, skills and experience, and reference to drawings and handbooks. Occasionally the chief engineer would seek advice from the technical superintendent in head office; but, if he did, it was for reassurance from someone who was just as experienced as him. Time has moved on, so has the technology, and there is a perception that the knowledge, skills and experience, both ashore and afloat, are not keeping pace with the technological revolution. Increasingly, safety investigation reports tell us that a causal feature of a breakdown was a failure to diagnose the problem, largely because the technical team had not been properly trained on that system; or because the manufacturer’s handbook and ship system operating procedures were not written in the native language of the reader and were difficult to understand; or that the signage or system labeling was not in the native language of the crew.
We have moved to the era of condition-based maintenance, repair by replacement (often directly by the system manufacturer) such that traditional engineering skills are being rapidly diminished. We read also of poor leadership and communication, between the chief engineer and the master, and the mixed-nationality crew. The onboard team is becoming ‘hands off ’, reduced to ensuring that the regulations are complied with, supervising riding crews, maintaining installed systems, and managing technical, commercial and environmental risk for the duration of a charter. Meanwhile, technical superintendents (who themselves may be of limited experience) risk making technical decisions with a financial focus; and with an inexact knowledge of the systems on a particular ship.
Any visit to an operational ship will reveal adaptations by the engineers that improve workability, controllability or maintainability for the crew. This issue explains how the engineer’s role in addressing the human element continues, despite the increasing complexity of ship systems.
Credits: The nautical institute
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