Supply shortage calls for creativity in the engine room

Oct 5, 2021 by JD Anson

Nimble engineers know there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Despite some setbacks, the world is slowly emerging from the depths of the COVID pandemic. Nations are relaxing their borders, charters are at an all-time high, and bosses are happy to have a place to go that doesn’t involve large crowds. Many have made gobs of money in the past year and are happy to spend it. The load has lifted a bit for the crew … except for the engine department.

Guests never think of the engineers until something doesn’t work. Most wouldn’t even know the boat has one until the toilet doesn’t flush. And guarding that behind-the-scenes anonymity has become more challenging now because of the difficulties in obtaining spare parts.

We have all heard news reports of the “Big Three” automakers in the U.S. idling production lines because of chip shortages — just like shortages in chips used to make everything from PLCs to engines. But chips are not the only factor. In September, China locked down Xiamen, a city of 4.5 million people that happens to be a main manufacturing site for Schneider and ABB, companies that supply many of the electrical components on board yachts.

Larger companies are buying up all available stock of products they use to ensure continuity in serving their customers. For example, an automotive stereo retailer told me that he cannot buy head units, amplifiers or speakers from any of his distributors. All shipments arriving in the U.S. are gobbled up by giants such as Amazon, Crutchfield, Best Buy, etc. — that is, if these products even get to the U.S.

As of this writing, a record 147 container ships are off the California coast of Los Angeles awaiting clearance to enter the port. Dock space is not the issue — there is simply no room left in the ports for containers. There is a reported shortage of tens of thousands of truckers to move freight out of ports — and rail transport, as a result, is overbooked.

So what does all this have to do with cats? The old adage “There is more than one way to skin a cat” applies to keeping a yacht functioning in these times. Engineers and service techs have had to become more nimble and creative to engineer workarounds for unavailable spares: changing manufacturers for different components of same or similar specifications; fabricating parts to replace unobtainable pieces; searching for parts in uncommon spots, such as eBay and aggregators like OnlineComponents; and stocking up on consumables when they do become available.

Suppliers and companies would like nothing better than to quickly provide needed spares, but they can’t give what they don’t have. And when parts are found, their prices have escalated to astronomical levels, some doubling and even tripling. There is no short-term resolution for this predicament. Economists and supply chain experts predict one to three years before supply catches up with demand.

Lack of flexibility in allowing substitutions will only delay needed repairs. Being demanding will cause rifts between suppliers and vessels that benefit no one. Patience and understanding will be key to surviving these shortages.

JD Anson has over 20 years of experience as a chief engineer on superyachts. He is currently project manager at Fine Line Marine Electric in Fort Lauderdale.