MAX1: Do People or Equipment Cause Ocean Pollution?

In the MAX1 study survey we included a few questions where we asked crews to tell us what their favorite Oily Water Separator brands are. We were very hesitant to include that question because there could be all types of weird bias and we would need a huge sample to makes sense of data where there could be as many as 40 brands and even more models mentioned.

The survey was very successful, but the “favorite brand of OWS” question was not very effective. We wanted to include that question because there is a real problem with brand specific customer feedback in OWS equipment.  Some OWS manufacturers may have great working relationships with certain ship owners, but, overall, shipowners simply buy what the shipyard deems a good deal, or they themselves specify a brand with little or no feedback from their crews.

The lack of feedback, on a systems design level, is very ineffective.

And that is why we have so many OWS brands. After all these years (yes folks, OWS technology as we know it started in the early 80’s; we are talking over 30 years here) there should have been a competitive shake out where only a few manufacturers remain. This has occurred specifically in the case of main engines and fuel oil purifiers where, in essence, only a few types and brands remain, because those that don’t work stop the ship and rapidly lose the market.

Fewer manufacturers is better (although a monopoly is bad), it allows the manufacturers to be called to task when things go wrong, forces the manufacturer to pay attention and increases the potential damage from weak design and the potential profits from good design. Moreover, it greatly reduces training, inspection and replacement parts burdens. Only in non functional, or luxury products, is the availability of many manufacturers not detrimental, but in commercial maritime we don’t deal with that type of frilly stuff.

So how can we start a product performance feedback loop with OWS? The survey did indicate manufacturers that we know are more legitimate than those that were not mentioned. But actually we never really asked the true and more effective but socially awkward question: “Which OWS brands are junk?”

The weird joy of immersion in a complex problem is that occasionally there are random insights and here is one:

Port state authorities issue press releases on OWS settlements on a regular basis. They generally mention the ship, the shipowner and the crew by name but never mention the OWS manufacturer. Knowing the names of the ship, ship owner or crew member serves little social use, but mentioning the brand and type of OWS (and OCM) that was found to have been used improperly opens a very useful line of discussion. Why not always mentioned the brand and model of the OWS and OCM that were involved?  

OWS manufacturers may argue that “OWS do not pollute oceans, people pollute oceans”.  But if OWS works 100% all of the time, people will not pollute.

Feedback on those units that fail to work properly more often will serve both the manufacturers and the public at large. One failed OWS by one manufacturer does not point at a problem, but it certainly would make sense for the manufacturer to spend some time to figure out why the crew did not use the OWS properly to prevent it from reoccurring on that vessel and other vessels. Meanwhile, a larger number of OWS failures by one brand or model could point at a more significant problem with the design itself and would alert owners to shop for alternate solutions.

I would not be surprised if some manufacturers would object to this suggestion, but data is king, and, subjectively, I did notice that those OWS that were listed as favorites in the MAX1 survey are not the brands that I have encountered most often in criminal investigations. I suspect that responsible and clever manufacturers would focus on finding methods to keep their equipment from being mentioned and also would be more than happy to learn from their mistakes.

In engineering there is nothing wrong with failure; it is needed as part and parcel of engineering. However, allowing the same failure to occur twice is not called failure in engineering; it is called negligence.