Business changes overnight to keep ships sailing during pandemic

Business changes overnight to keep ships sailing during pandemic - Wilton Centre

A Teesside business has revealed how it changed its working practices overnight to ensure the UK’s vital supply lifeline was maintained during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lloyds Register GMT (LR GMT), based at the Wilton Centre near Redcar, is one of the five companies in the world which – together with competitors – provides a fuel testing service for the planet’s 90,000 sea-going ships.

LR GMT employs 53 administrative and laboratory staff at the Wilton Centre who test many thousands of samples of oil a year for various parameters – such as water or sulphur content – which might affect the ship’s performance, be a danger to the crew or breach laws on emissions.

“Depending on the client we test between 20 and 30 different parameters, and different parameters have different effects: from being useful to know to being critical,” said its managing director Andrew Shaw.

“We can say, for example in the worst case, that if you use this you’ll destroy your engine in one voyage from Europe to the United States.  Then you’d be talking about millions of dollars losses covering damage to the engine, down time, loss of rental income, and that’s not mentioning loss of reputation.”

He added: “Problem fuels exist all the time – 12-13% of fuel has a problem within it and 2-3% has a serious problem. If you have a fleet of 50 ships you’ll have two or three serious cases every year where you’ll have something critical which needs our services.”

Guardian Marine Testing was launched from the Wilton Centre in 2007 by Mr Shaw and his business partners Paul Livingston and Andy McEwen.

In 2015 their company was bought by Lloyds Register, one of the most famous names in global shipping, after several years of working together.

Now, as well as the staff based at the Wilton Centre, LR GMT employs people in Southampton, Greece and Singapore and operates laboratories in China, Panama and Singapore.

As the likelihood of lockdown grew stronger, Mr Shaw said the company realised it had to act quickly.

“What we provide is something in the background that nobody really knows about, but we consider ourselves a key industry in supporting the country to keep it going with supplies of food, raw materials, fuels – in fact virtually all imported goods” said Mr Shaw.

To add to the pressure on the business, at the start of the year a major change affecting marine fuels came into force when the sulphur content was reduced to 0.5%

“It was a huge last step in a legislative process which had gone on for 15 years,” said Mr Shaw.  “As a result within the marine industry there was a very great level of increased concern.”

That had resulted in a 40% increase in workload in January and, as then as the global impact of coronavirus began to be felt the company’s workload “went through the roof”.

To keep its vital service operating when the UK went into lockdown, the company’s administrative staff, about a quarter of the people employed in the Teesside operation, started working from home.

That, however, was not an option for the scientists and technicians who test the samples in the company’s laboratories. So, as well having to keep two meters apart, urgent measures were introduced overnight to ensure they could safely carry out their procedures but within the parameters laid out under COVID guidelines and restrictions.  The new ways of working proved so successful that it is likely some new processes will remain in place.

“Understandably there was a high level of anxiety that existed around everybody then,” said Mr Shaw, “and in the first couple of weeks there were lots of discussions and some very good input from the laboratory technicians. They won’t take any credit, but they should take immense pride in the role they have played in keeping the UK going.”

LR GMT is one of a number of companies based at the Wilton Centre involved in vital pandemic-related work.

In June Absolute Antibody reported how it was working with 14 of the world’s top 15 pharmaceutical companies who are trying to develop a vaccine or treatment for the virus and in July Micropore Technologies revealed that vaccine developers from around the world were interested in the precision and large-scale production capability of its membrane emulsification technology.

The Wilton Centre forms part of a national network of science parks which cover over 1.7m sq ft and are home to more than 200 businesses.  The Wilton Centre is one of the biggest parks – with more than 60 businesses who employ 750 people.