Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest

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Charles Darwin, in his evolutionary theory, states that a successful species adapts best to the immediate environment. (He did not coin the highly popular phrase attributed to him - ‘Survival of the Fittest’ but accepted economist Herbert Spencer’s suggestion regarding the same. That’s trivia for you!)

The Royal Air Force, like many others, regularly inducts many fresh trainees into their ranks after conducting rigorous and thorough tests. Some years ago, they had published their findings regarding the demography of suitable trainees in various branches. Some of the results were as surprising as they were disappointing to some. They had found that those trainees who had spent considerable hours in their childhood playing video games found it easier to master the newer flying controls of modern warplanes!

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Conventional wisdom had always placed more emphasis on children playing more outdoor games which fine-tuned their hand-eye coordination, and rightly so. And now this! What’s a parent to do!

Working on ships has conservatively been a kind of ‘seat of the pant's operation. Not necessarily the most cerebral of careers, it needed a willingness to bend the back, a capacity to do so for long hours, dollops of common sense, and adequate physical fitness. Good training and experience would take care of the rest.

How can we forget the days when we had to swing a sledgehammer repeatedly to tighten or slacken the nuts of the main engine? Non-skid surface or not, to concentrate energy from the body into a long smooth swing of the sled which ended at the tip of a flogging spanner was more difficult than it seems. To be able to do it inside the crankcase was worthy of a graduation ceremony. When we first used the hydraulic jacks to do the job, it gave one the feeling of ascending into heaven without actually having to die!

All that is now old hat. The advent of the PC into the engine room and on the bridge made automation so much more affordable and still kept it within the reach of a seafarer’s skill sets.

That scenario is changing. More innovative designs of ships, more advanced automation, ever-stricter pollution norms that need a higher level of technology to achieve mean that the seafarer of the future will have to have, in addition to the abovementioned qualities, (to coin a new word), some neediness too.

The word ‘nerd’ has conservatively been used in a somewhat derogatory sense. Not any more. Nerds drive technology. Technology drives progress.

Automation has existed on ships for years now. However, it was always an ‘add-on’. This is to say that the basic component or machinery was capable of running without this automation. If the automation failed, an operator could disable the controls completely, fall back on basic principles and operate it manually, albeit with more manpower and/or supervision.

Times are changing! Let’s take the example of the intelligent camshaft-less engine. It is easily able to meet the air pollution norms. But if the controls fail, it does not remain ‘smokeless’ anymore. In the worst case, it may not be able to run at all!

In the first few years of the new millennium, these engines were in their infancy and all ships were supplied modular spares for the control system of the plug and play type. The manufacturers had assured ship owners that in the worst case of a systemic malfunction, rebooting the system would solve the worst of problems.

Guess what, things didn’t always pan out that way! When they didn’t, the ship staff was, unsurprisingly, completely clueless. Such problems have been solved by working on both ends of the spectrum, ie, by tweaking the design to cater to the ‘worst-case scenario and by providing well-directed and more intensive training to the staff.

When training equipment is assembled or technical books are written, they are generic in nature. They need to be so to encompass a larger spectrum of students. With increasing levels of sophistication, this is going to prove inadequate. At the moment, the manufacturing of equipment and training of the user workforce are mutually exclusive domains. This will change. The manufacturers of equipment will have to be actively involved in designing training modules, whether they involve navigation, cargo work, machinery, or allied duties.

That brings us to another issue. Information found in textbooks can often be outdated. For example, if the material used in the manufacture of a cylinder head is mentioned as being so and so elements in so and so proportion, it is more than likely that the actual material used in modern engines is far removed from that mentioned. The reason for this is that manufacturing companies guard their technical secrets as their lives depend on them. Authors of the books get access to this information only when it gets superseded by newer technology and ceases to be worth protecting!

When manufacturers get into training modules, how much of their secrets will they be ready to part with? On the other hand, the performance of their equipment and subsequently their reputation will depend on the dependability of the operators which in turn will hinge on the quality of their training. Perforce they will have to perform this balancing act and seafarers will get adequately trained. There is no doubt about that.

There is one unwavering quality about the future. It is always bright!  

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