Dredging roundtable explores the effect of technology on the sector’s future

The roundtable discussion, Norfolk, VA.

The DPC roundtable discussion in Norfolk, Virginia. Credit: IHS Markit

On 26 June Fairplay sister publication Dredging and Port Construction conducted a roundtable in Norfolk, Virginia, on the topic ‘The Interplay between emerging technology and dredging’. The event, which was sponsored by Liebherr and followed Chatham House rules in order to encourage frank conversation, was attended by 18 industry leaders and 4 observers from across the dredging and port construction sector.

The discussions were broken down into three sections: ‘the changing landscape of the dredging world’, which focused on newly available and emerging technologies; ‘early advantage’, which looked at the costs and rewards of being an early adopter of the new technology; and last, ‘future proofing’, which explored the best ways to ensure that assets remain valuable and relevant in the long term.

Driven by data

One of the first, and most enduring, points made at the roundtable was that of the increasing importance of data in the dredging world, which is a reflection of other conversations happening in multiple industries around the globe. On the dredging landscape, the main drivers of change are increasing regulations and the growing importance attributed to precision and transparency.

The advent of real-time data, robustness of bespoke software programmes, and dropping costs of highly attuned sensors are ensuring that operators can accurately monitor their operations and share this information with multiple stakeholders, including ports and regulators. For example, a dredging operator could input drilling and pump parameters into an onboard computer that would alert the vessels’ crew, as well as a shoreside team, if the drill slows down so that they can take action as soon as possible.

However, the general consensus around the table was that the dredging sector was extremely slow to adopt new technology, such as real-time monitoring, hybrid drives, modelling, and remote operations, and was already lagging six to eight years behind other industries. The point was also made on a number of occasions during the discussion that technology is only as good as the people using it, which not only applies to the fact that human beings may be resistant to change but also that those who do use the technology may do so incorrectly or inefficiently. Furthermore, overreliance on technology opens the possibility that dredging operators would unquestioningly accept information without checking to see if the technology was functioning properly.

Applying the information

Perhaps the largest part of the discussion that afternoon was spent on the question of how to reap the benefits of Big Data, a term that was shown to mean different things to the various attendees (a well-known problem across the wider maritime industry). Roundtable attendees agreed that gathering data itself was useless unless the company knew what parameters it wanted to measure against set goals, the resulting data was properly processed, and the findings were correctly applied.

Predictive maintenance was seen to be the greatest advantage of data gathering and analysis, enabling dredging operators and marine engineers to act ahead of breakdowns, extend the lifespan of drilling equipment, and allow early intervention before a breakdown became catastrophic.

However, a number of attendees pointed out that a lot more needs to be done in order to make the monitoring technology more user friendly. In particular, it was stated that there were very few software programmes specific to the dredging sector and, in many cases, project managers were having to tweak existing software to make it fit for purpose.

Many speakers highlighted the importance of mobile phones as tools and called for a greater integration of mobile phone and app technology in the dredging sector. One attendee pointed out that an ideal app would be one that displayed the monitored results of the 10 most important parameters for a specific dredging project, so that the core decision-making process for the team was simplified and accelerated.

Talking cost

An interesting point raised during the discussion was that the price of new technology was, in many cases, a secondary factor for acceptance, with the primary concern being proof that the technology worked. While the actual cost of a product was still important, speakers pointed out that in most cases, 10–15% of the budget for a new dredging vessel or project was allocated to purchasing new technology.

In fact, credibility and verification were seen as the leading factors when it came to making purchasing decisions. However, the reluctance of many companies, particularly smaller organisations with limited funds, to be the first to trial new equipment and systems is one of the reasons for the six- to eight-year lag mentioned above. This has meant that what is largely considered proven technology is still seen as ground-breaking in the dredging world.

A number of attendees also voiced the opinion that the US dredging market, in particular, was reluctant to implement new technologies and seen to be lagging behind, while Europe was seen to be the testbed for emerging innovation. 

Incoming workforce

An important factor in adopting new technology, as voiced by many participants, was that younger generations were distinctly more comfortable with digital technology and so more likely to use it effectively. While there were some at the table who were openly sceptical about the ‘millennial’ generation, the fact that 50% of the construction workforce is said to be on the verge of retiring meant that many attendees were eager to share knowledge on how to recruit bright staff and ensure that they remained with the company beyond a few years.

The image of dredging as a boring sector was seen to be a hindrance to the recruiting process and a number of speakers suggested that offering internships would allow the younger generation to get an insider’s view of the sector and the interesting projects that were under way. The consensus was that it was vital for companies to offer new staff members engaging opportunities at work, as the current norm among people in their 20s and 30s was to switch companies if they found their work monotonous or morally objectionable.

Attendees agreed that increasing automation has enabled companies to consider technology an alternative to recruiting staff and this was seen as likely to be attractive in the coming years.

Future-proofing the fleet

Given the reluctance of the dredging industry as a whole to embrace emerging technology, it is unsurprising that many of the company representatives at the table were worried about fighting the obsolescence of their investments. In particular, there was concern that the accelerated pace of change, particularly for software, was shortening the lifespan of products.

Attendees were also apprehensive about the commonality of parts being an issue, particularly when integrated software could rule out using a temporary spare. While modular technology was seen as an attractive long-term option, compatibility of different generations of electronics and software was viewed as a difficult challenge to overcome.

Knowledge sharing

Virtually all the participants agreed that the willingness to share information (both in terms of data and personal experience) was integral for the dredging sector to transition into the digital era in a manner that would make it environmentally friendly and operationally effective.

DPC is glad that the roundtable was able to facilitate this aim and provide a networking opportunity at the drinks reception that followed the roundtable. We would like to extend our thanks to Liebherr for sponsoring this opportunity for industry engagement.

Contact Namrata Nadkarni and follow her on Twitter: @nadkarninamrata