Damen tugs – standing on a solid foundation to build for the future
There’s a new head of Damen’s Tugs Product Department. Dirk Degroote has recently stepped into the role vacated by the well-known Coen Boudesteijn, following his retirement after 40 years at Damen.
Dirk started his career at Damen in 2003 as a graduate student from the Delft University of Technology, developing an innovative solution for tender stowage in relation to the damage stability of large motor yachts at Amels. After his graduation in 2004 to naval architect, he started as design and proposal engineer, developing amongst other things a fuel efficient design with maximised crew comfort and operability for safety standby vessels. From 2007, he worked as project manager, gaining more experience in production, during the building of two fast catamaran Ro-Pax ferries in Asia. After this project, Dirk became (sub) contract manager, developing business insights in relation to production efficiencies and strategic planning. Early 2012 he went back to his roots as a naval architect and joined the Tugs division, first as design and proposal engineer, then in charge of the design & proposal team and now end responsible for the complete Tugs portfolio within Damen. Having his roots in Belgium, Dirk now lives in the Netherlands, is married and has three young children.
Evolution not revolution
Speaking of his new role, Dirk says, “I feel privileged to be at the steering wheel of such a business. Having worked for several years with Coen, I learnt a lot from him and have a deep respect for what has been achieved. Therefore, I’m proud to have the opportunity to bring our tugs to the next level, to further exceed our customers expectations. I look forward to bringing the same level of passion and commitment that Coen has invested into the development of tugs over the course of his career. My position can be seen as evolution, not revolution. With a stable foundation for further development and innovation, preparing our tugs for the future.”
Asked what he sees as the key to the stability of this foundation, Dirk begins with standardisation. Introduced by Kommer Damen in the early 1970s, this unique approach to shipbuilding is what enables Damen to guarantee its clients fast, costeffective delivery of reliable, quality vessels without customers needing to invest in a supervisory team during production.
“This philosophy is applied to all our vessels. We spend a lot of time getting something right, we continuously invest in our extensive in-house R&D. We collect feedback from our clients in order to develop new technologies and then apply them to all relevant vessels in our portfolio. If there is an issue that needs to be addressed, we have the volume of vessels in series to carry out in-depth R&D on it and address it. That this method works is evidenced by the lifespan of our vessels. Many of the original standard Damen vessels – the Pushy Cats – are still in operation today.”
Standardisation, he is keen to point out, does not by definition restrict client options. On the contrary, it can be a launchpad for a diverse range of very reliable choices. “It’s all about modularity. If we have the various systems, components, add-ons and propulsion trains etc. available in a standard range, then the client has a lot of options, which can be quickly applied in a straightforward plug and play manner.
“Combined with an extensive product portfolio, this leads to us being able to deliver a vessel in line with client requirements, including the short delivery times that Damen is so renowned for. I am very focused on ensuring we continue in this way, whilst looking to increase custom options for the future. We are already doing this to a certain extent, but I want to take it a step further.”
Think global, act local
Another key feature is Damen’s philosophy of being close to its clients – summed up with the maxim ‘think global, act local’. Dirk explains: “We standardise the systems and components of our vessels, and design them to the smallest detail. This way, we can assure the quality and attention to detail is brought to every Damen tug, wherever it is built. This can be anywhere in the world, through our own yards or at a yard of the clients’ choice through our Damen Technical Cooperation (DTC) concept.” This can be by providing designs and licenses, material packages and building support, either individually or in combination.
“For our stock vessels we aim for optimal production lines at our own yards in Romania, Vietnam and China. Together with the high level of standardisation and attention to detail, this ensures the optimal end result for our clients, without even the need for extensive client supervision.” To stay close to the clients, Damen also regularly looks at opportunities to ship batches of stock vessels around the world; “it’s not unheard of to have a heavy-lift vessel full of available tugs leave Asia and, by the time the shipment arrives in Europe, to have sold every one of them.”
Quality in the detail
“Coen always said quality is in the details. This is true and those details are not only about the finish and the aesthetics, it’s also about placing levers in the right place, incorporating ergonomics and the simplicity of systems. We’re strong in this.”
Quality is also about taking things away. Damen vessels are clear, there are no obstacles. This is better for maintenance – everything is optimally placed – it’s easy to paint, so there is no rust in the corners, providing a better lifetime presentation for the end client and an easier job for the crew on board.
A fine balance
The development of new products can be challenging, as there are often seemingly contradictory features to bring into balance. A clear example of this is the increasing size of vessels entering ports that have been developed for much smaller ships. This entails increasing performance and manoeuvrability of the tugs that are required to assist these vessels, at precisely the same time as industry is demanding ever more safety consciousness in the designs.
“We need to offer more power, more bollard pull and greater manoeuvrability on smaller, more economical vessels. Ports are not growing though vessels are, so tugs needs to be more compact. More power in a smaller vessel means less room for error. At the same time, safety is crucial. We’ve already demonstrated a robust track record on combining the two important features of increased safety and performance. Take the Twin-Fin for example. It’s compact, yet predictable and responsive. And the Reverse Stern Drive Tug (RSD) as a concept is very flexible, a safe way to sail and operate in both directions. A good answer to current market needs.”
An eye on the future
Looking to the future, Dirk points out that his family gives him a daily reminder of the direction.
Having three young children who have been able to use an iPad since they were toddlers is very insightful and confronting; we need to be aware that children today will be the vessel operators of the future and they will be much more digitally minded than we are today.
“With that in mind, we are looking closely at things like automation. On short notice digitisation and automation can make the everyday aspects of vessel operation more straightforward and safe – for example by looking at what information a captain needs and presenting it in an easy way, without distraction.” In the longer term, technology can help us in bringing safety and operations to a complete new level, gradually eliminating human interaction, prone for errors and dominant factor in accidents. This is a trend which is now materializing at full speed in the automotive industry and although sometimes traditional, our business will also go there.
“Following on from our historical successes – taking for example the introduction of ASD Tugs – my ultimate goal would be to develop a complete new tool – maybe an unmanned vessel, one which continues to offer the same level of reliability that people expect from Damen. A new product, one that is very different, but one that clearly comes from the same foundation, something that is clearly Damen.”
In it together
Dirk is clear on what will help drive innovation at Damen, he says three factors are of vital importance – to listen closely to what clients want in order to exceed their expectations, to have a motivated team, and to work together with customers and vessel operators, suppliers and R&D institutes.
“We need to cooperate to innovate. To work together on new challenges. This means building a relevant tug for the time – incorporating safety, reliability, unmanned operation, automation, whatever the market is looking for at the time. We’re doing this in the Damen way – we’re doing our homework, getting the right product and looking for the right partners to help us develop it. It’s a shared journey.