Despite pandemic, Cochin Shipyard has returned to 75% capacity: CMD

October marks a watershed month for Cochin Shipyard Ltd. (CSL), a Mini Ratna PSU, as India’s maiden indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I) being built by the company is starting basin trials in preparation for the sea trials and subsequent induction into the Navy.

The shipyard has plans to augment shipbuilding and repair capabilities and to foray into emerging segments such as urban mobility, CMD Madhu S. Nair said in an interview. Excerpts:

What is the status on the aircraft carrier?

Basin trials of the carrier [that displaces 40,000 tons] are set to begin this month. This is when its propellers are being turned for the first time using the vessel’s own power. In fact, along with this is the activation of a gamut of allied systems and controls.

For a ship of its size and complexity, it’ll be a major milestone that also signals that the sea trials are not far away. But that depends on a number of factors including the opening up of international travel as commissioning engineers are to arrive from various overseas locations.

How has the firm fared during the pandemic?

Working in two shifts since April, we have been able to return to about 75% of capacity. We have orders worth ₹14,000 crore. Last year, we bagged an order from the Jindal group for four mini bulk carriers and another from the Union Home Ministry for nine floating border outposts for the BSF. Then the pandemic struck, but we were able to get this order for autonomous vessels from Norway.

From a value point of view, it’s just about ₹125 crore, but this contract, signed amidst the pandemic in July, is significant for us because of its technology and because it offers us a strong learning curve. We think there’s a market in India for boats and vessels that aren’t very large but where technology will stand out.

With appropriate partnerships, we can build for the world too. This autonomous vessel, for instance, was developed by Kongsberg Maritime in Norway. It has a 1,800 KWh battery system and it is not easy to integrate and prove such systems in a marine environment. We are already building hybrid electric ferries for the Kochi Water Metro.

Have your off-campus ventures begun to look up?

The ship repair facility in Mumbai, in the dock leased from the port trust, had done well last year doing business worth ₹55 crore. We were bolstering the infrastructure when the pandemic hit the city hard, which hit our work too. It’s just a matter of time before it gets into a stable phase, though.

In Kolkata, unlike Mumbai, there was no developed ship repair ecosystem. But it was better than what we expected. We are handling the fifth project there now, a dredger of the DCI. In Port Blair, there are people on ground, but the COVID-19 situation remains bad which will further delay the maiden project by a few months.

These apart, we have taken over Tebma Shipyard in Karnataka and are going to build some fishing vessels there. We want to begin operations in January, 2021, and are in the process of recruiting hands. The Hooghly Cochin Shipyard in Kolkata where we intend to build inland vessels should be ready for commissioning by the end of this year or early next.

What does the shipyard’s strategic plan for 2030 comprise ?

It’s an ongoing evolutionary vision plan called CRUISE 2030 prepared in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group. It’s multi-pronged and is intended to strengthen our core areas of shipbuilding and repair and to venture into adjacencies and emerging spheres targeting manifold growth. Construction of smaller, hi-tech platforms to contribute to sustainable, modern urban mobility, to cite an instance. And the orders are in large numbers.

Also part of the long-term strategy are systems to improve internal efficiencies, to unlock value. It’s some time since we have introduced full digital movement of files.

Now we are creating a digital centre of excellence in which various things are looked at: maybe a chat bot to assist, a handheld app to guide contractors and people’s entry into the shipyard etc.

Sensor-based tracking of material movement, digital access control and the like are all being looked at. The processes are being digitally realigned. Concurrently, we have just replaced a 25-year-old life cycle management platform, a benchmark then, with a new manufacturing excellence system developed by Dassault Systems, which will also interlink all processes.

As part of your infrastructure expansion, there’s this large dry dock being built in Kochi and an international ship repair facility (ISRF) on land owned by the Cochin Port Trust. Are these projects on schedule?

Both were moving fast. We had a predominantly migrant labour force and the pandemic slowed down the work, as social distancing protocols and the ban on working at night kicked in. But we are hopeful of completing the ISRF by the end of 2021 and the dry dock in the latter part of 2022.