Jobs, innovation and sustainability

On the recent publication of its 2015 Annual Report, Netherlands Maritime Technology (NMT) chairman Hans Voorneveld highlighted the importance of innovation, sustainability and the generation of employment in strengthening the Dutch maritime industry. Maritime Holland invited him to expand on his initial remarks. We also asked Vitters managing director Louis Hamming and Van der Velden Marine Systems managing director Wim Knoester for their opinion on these three key subjects.

The need for focus in the Dutch maritime sector

NMT’s 2015 Annual Report illustrates numerous positive signs. Look at the stable levels of employment, the 9.4 per cent increase in sales and increased turnover throughout the various maritime branches. Not to mention, the almost breath-taking figures from the Dutch super yacht builders. All this in spite of the enduring challenges of overcapacity in certain sectors leading to shrinking freight rates and the continuing shock waves of low oil prices.

“Although we expect 2016 to be another crucial year, we still like to bring a message of hope”, begins Voorneveld. “Let us focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, so that the industry is instrumental in generating employment and increasing sustainability. Both in the Netherlands and in export markets. We need to export, and in order to achieve this we need to be front-runners. Our focus should be directed towards exporting and innovating. Here the Dutch government could provide extra stimulation. Especially when you compare the high levels of support that the German maritime industry receives from its government for innovation.”

Award winner

Some prime examples of innovation have arisen from two very different sectors, namely yachting and inland shipping. The Vitters-built Unfurled was recently awarded the title of ‘Sailing Yacht of the Year’ at the World Superyacht Awards. According to Vitters managing director Louis Hamming what makes this award so special is that Unfurled received this prize in recognition of its applications of innovation. “For example, one of the ship’s most important characteristics was its retractable thrusters”, he notes. “It is a relatively new method that we have developed with a number of suppliers. The feedback that we have heard from captains is that they are very happy. The thrusters can rotate 90 degrees which gives a lot more manoeuvrability.” The 46-metre long Unfurled also has some clever bits of kit installed to increase the efficiency of sail handling. “We have worked on the sail stowage, furling and unfurling system. The asymmetric foresail is stored on a drum which means easier crew handling. This can be achieved with the regular crew instead of the racing crew that is normally required. Raising the asymmetric foresail, for instance, takes 30 seconds.”

How to stay at the top

With an innovation targeted at the inland shipping sector, Van der Velden’s flex tunnel is deployed when inland vessels are sailing in shallow waters. This ensures sufficient water flow to the propellers, thus maintaining their efficiency. “The flex tunnel is a good example of innovation in our work”, comments managing director Wim Knoester. “It combines knowledge from the fields of mechanical engineering and hydrodynamics. And looking towards the future, I think that it will be a game changer for the sector. The first vessels with this system are already sailing and the initial results are positive, demonstrating up to 25 per cent fuel savings.” Van der Velden’s retractable flanking rudder system is another example of innovation: “One that will first be seen in Paraguayan inland river tow boats to improve manoeuvrability during astern operations. Both systems bring both financial and environmental advantages.” Knoester’s message to his colleagues within the industry is clear: “For the whole maritime sector, it is important to be innovative and stay innovative. This maintains our competitive position.”

Inland shipping vessel Rhenus Duisberg with extended Flex Tunnel, photo courtesy of Van der Velden Marine Systems
Inland shipping vessel Rhenus Duisberg with extended Flex Tunnel, photo courtesy of Van der Velden Marine Systems

The wrong impression

NMT’s stance on the subject of sustainability is one of continued focus. “Sustainability has been a very important subject for many years in our innovation programmes”, chairman Voorneveld continues. “However, if you consider that 85 to 90 per cent of global transport is maritime-based, it is a shame that the Paris Climate Agreement does not mention the shipping industry. This gives the wrong impression of the maritime market. We have solutions and the sector as a whole is ready for this development. And there are even more solutions in development that we would like to apply. But this depends on the costs as well as the regulations involved. And of course, how much stimulation our clients, the ship owners, receive from their governments.”

Efficiency = sustainability

For the company Van der Velden, sustainability has very close ties with innovation. This is due to the fact that the company’s innovations are linked to improving efficiency, which in turn have positive environmental effects. “Sustainability is at the forefront of everything we do and how we think,” says Knoester. And this is not just for inland shipping vessels. “Our work also involves rudders, steering gear and nozzles for oceangoing vessels too. From the smallest vessels up to the largest container vessels like the 20,600 TEU container ship that is currently being built in China.” Asymmetric rudder technology – which, among other things, results in reduced fuel consumption – is another example how Van der Velden’s innovations have sustainable repercussions. “For us, these two subjects are inextricably linked: one cannot be without the other.”

Hamming highlights the fact that, for Vitters, the issue of sustainability extends mostly to production. “A more sustainable production process is healthier for our employees and it will result in a better environment for us all. In terms of sustainability within our final product – in general, sailing yachts are far more fuel efficient in their use than motor yachts. This should be an argument in favour of sailing yachts. We make them more efficient by making them lighter and giving more performance. We strive continuously towards this and it is an area where we have gained considerable ground.”

Van der Velden's work also involves rudders and steering gear for oceangoing vessels, photo courtesy Van der Velden Marine Systems
Van der Velden’s work also involves rudders and steering gear for oceangoing vessels, photo courtesy Van der Velden Marine Systems

Positive developments

Another one of Voorneveld’s focus areas was the generation of employment. This has strong links to a successful education system, with which he has his concerns, particularly in the more practical subjects. NMT has paid a lot of attention to this over recent years. This has been successful at the higher levels of education: in universities, for example. “When you talk about the lower and middle levels of education, the situation is more difficult. We are trying to improve this by consulting with numerous education institutions.” NMT is aware that more and more companies are establishing their own in-house training courses and academies. “These are implemented mainly by the larger companies. For smaller businesses this is more expensive, and therefore more difficult to set up. We are looking to improve this situation not only at the theoretical level but also at the practical level: concentrating on craftsmanship. The number of applications of students into the maritime sector remains a concern because we have to compete with many different other sectors. On the other hand, the increasing number of female applicants coming into the sector over the last few years is a positive development.”

Photo by Stuart Pearce
Photo by Stuart Pearce

Attracting the applicants

Echoing the experiences of many a managing director, Knoester (Van der Velden) comments that finding well-trained personnel remains a challenge: “Especially on the workflow itself”, he says. “It could also be strengthened at the research and engineering levels. In this respect, the maritime sector really is an international market. We have good contact at the engineering level with schools and research institutes. And we also provide in-house training to students, focusing on metalworking production techniques as well as the maritime sector. Education is an important subject because it involves our future.”

Hamming (Vitters) adds that there have been fewer people following (maritime-based) technical courses in the recent years which has had its consequences on the amount of new blood coming into the sector. “Technical work, especially the hands-on jobs, have been looked down upon. At the same time, the Dutch government has reduced the funding for technical education. Both these causes have eroded the popularity of such jobs. For example, we offer apprenticeships where possible but sometimes we don’t have a single applicant. Technical subjects were until recently just not sexy enough. We see a slight improvement, but it will take years to get sufficient people educated to the right level.”

The role of government

Listening to these key players from within the maritime sector, the role that the Dutch government plays is an important one. Voorneveld: “We want to shape the future of our industry in partnership with the Dutch government. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment has completed the Maritime Strategy Paper: this has been written in consultation with industry representatives and we are very happy with the result. However, the implementation of this strategic policy is going slower than we had hoped.” He goes on to emphasise that the importance of cooperation between the various maritime branches. “We can’t succeed without each other. We need the shipping companies – the shipping companies need us. This includes the research institutes, the ports and the naval sector too. All these cooperative relationships are very important.”

“The role of the government in our industry is to make the ‘golden triangle’ of government, research institutes and business as strong as possible”, concludes Voorneveld. “This will make the Dutch maritime industry even stronger in the export markets.”