Feeling the Structural Strain

19 July 2009 (Last Updated July 19th, 2009 18:30)

International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) chief executive Hugh Williams calls on the industry to work together. A concerted effort is needed to keep fatigue in structural engineering to a minimum.

Feeling the Structural Strain

Each year we hold a London reception on board the magnificent HMS Wellington, the last surviving member of the Grimsby Class of sloops that served with such distinction in the Second World War. She has been moored on the Thames since 1948, during which time she has been the home of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, a City of London Livery Company.

Today she is part floating museum and library as well as being a marvellous venue.

Naturally, as chief executive of IMCA, I give a speedy speech at each year’s reception, an update on our activity and a look into areas causing us concern or delight. This year I took structural engineering as the basis for my speech.

In structural engineering we deal with fatigue. This comes about when a structure is stressed by cyclic loads.

And there is the lovely expression ‘cumulative damage’. In other words a structure remembers and stores earlier loading on the journey to fatigue failure.

"In structural engineering we deal with fatigue. This comes about when a structure is stressed by cyclic loads."

It does not recover.

Our industry is cyclical. I have no need to point out the drastic financial cycle affecting us all at the moment but the oil industry has its own cycles too, based on oil prices, economics and politics.

This means we often receive a double hit.

As I told our audience on The Wellington, I could have stood in front of them and boasted that IMCA has grown by 28% since the previous Wellington reception (a remarkable feat), but I had to admit that actually I’m worried.

This cyclic loading is in danger of fatiguing our industry. The cumulative damage is there to see and the first structural failure is in personnel.

People are again abandoning our industry and leaving vulnerable what remains.

It does not have to be like this. Investing in a downturn often makes good economic sense.

"The oil industry has its own cycles, based on oil prices, economics and politics."

This year IMCA is opening a new geographic section in Central and South America – indeed, our annual seminar in November is to be held in Rio de Janeiro. I was recently in Rio to promote this and Petrobras is clearly investing heavily at the moment.

This is not only socially right for Brazil and a state-owned oil company but is good economics and excellent timing for the industry. I hope others around the world will follow.

Otherwise I fear for the new fleet (built and building) that we have achieved for the first time in 30 years. We are now heading for a slump, hence my worry.

Marine contractors need stability, predictability and continuity to deliver success to their clients, and clients need successful marine contractors – it is a two-way street.

So where does IMCA fit with this?

"The industry must want to steer a new course. Without that we will carry on in another – possibly wrong – direction."

IMCA is the trade association of offshore, marine and underwater engineering companies. I was proud to stand on The Wellington in 2008 and announce that we had 450 members.

Now we have almost 600 in 51 countries – that is fantastic growth. Indeed we hope to be able to announce that we have reached 600 member companies at Offshore Europe in early September.

IMCA aims to help our members through being a catalyst for dialogue and a knowledge base, and through sharing; a rudder to help steer us towards safe, efficient and cost effective projects. Rudders of big vessels do not change a ship's direction instantly, but they quietly alter course over time.

IMCA can do this. It has so many materials to contribute.

But it requires the industry to want to steer a new course. Without that we will carry on in another – possibly wrong – direction.

Through IMCA’s common language I’m sure we can help solve the challenges being thrown at us. Let us all work together to ensure that we head in the right direction and ensure cumulative damage within our industry is kept to the minimum, and that marine contractors can deliver value to their clients, who need jobs completed on time, on budget, by competent people and without incident.