From Seafaring to Corrosion Engineering

An interview with Belzona's David Blackwell


Published Sep 13, 2016 9:24 PM by Marina Silva

David Blackwell joined Belzona in 1987 after 13 years as an engineering officer with Shell. He now heads Belzona’s Engineering Services Department. We had a chance to catch up with David and ask him some questions about his long-lasting experience in the corrosion mitigation industry and the trends he sees in the market. 

As you spent over a decade in the Merchant Navy, can you please tell us a little bit about your life at sea?   

I joined Shell Tankers fresh out of school as an Engineering Cadet. It was just a great life being at sea. Until you’ve been out of sight of land for two weeks at a time, you just don’t realise how big the world is, how much ocean there is out there. You also get a chance to observe some spectacular sights – like the green flash. I also vividly remember the stars at night. At midnight, after finishing a late shift in the engine room, we’d come out, make a cuppa and sit out on the deck in the middle of the ocean in pitch black. Nobody that lives on land can ever see that amount of stars because of the lights from the cities. It is just awe inspiring, it really is. 

How did you come to trade the sea for a life on land?

I traded my life at sea for an opportunity to see my son grow up, so I accepted a voluntary redundancy as the company I was working for were reducing their fleet. The idea was then to get any odd job to give me time to look for a position on a rig supply vessel or a cross channel ferry to carry on my marine career. But I applied for a job at Belzona and have been here ever since, because I just enjoy the job so much. 

Throughout your career at Belzona, do any memorable moments in particular come to mind?

I remember my first application offshore, on a deaerator in the North Sea, which was also the first ever application we did in the Oil and Gas industry. The process vessel was 55 feet high and 20 feet in diameter and we coated the whole thing top to bottom. Up until we lost track when the asset owner sold the rig it was still in service after 12 years. It had a few patch repairs done because of mechanical damage, but the coating itself was intact. This platform has now been decommissioned, but a replica is installed in the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, preserving Belzona’s offshore legacy, so to speak.

How has the Belzona business changed over the years?

We are now getting into bigger types of business, where the applications are getting larger and more complex. And it’s a challenge, particularly in my position, to train people to recognise what the issues with large applications are. It is a major challenge to not only provide the materials, but to also provide the service to make sure the applications are done correctly. The validated training we offer helps a lot. The next stage is to propose a system whereby we can provide trained application teams that can help distributors who need them on a global basis.

Can you comment on how the marine industry changed over the years?

When I was at sea, there was probably a complement of 30 people aboard. These days the crew consists of 10-12, sometimes less, because everything is automated. The paint systems have changed, eliminating heavy metals like lead or copper. Ship designs have changed as well with the introduction of double bottoms and wing tanks in an effort to minimise oil spills. 

What are some of the emerging industries you get involved in?

A lot of things are happening in the renewable energy sector, with wind and wave power. We are working on at least three major projects in that sector. There are two major wave generator manufacturers, which we are working with to help protect their machines and do some bonding applications. Another emerging opportunity is in wind turbine blade leading edge protection. 

What do you think will happen in the next 10 years in the corrosion and maintenance sectors?

If you look at the cost of corrosion worldwide, generally speaking, in any industrial country it is about four percent of their GNP. As far as Belzona is concerned, we haven’t scratched the surface yet. I think we need to develop specific niche market products to address the issues that industry might have in the future; health and safety legislation is starting to frown upon welding in the maintenance sector. Shutting the whole plant down for hot work repairs is also not economically viable and our kind of industry – repairs that are cold – will have the opportunity to advance faster than ever before. 

If you look back in history, ships, tanks, bridges and everything in general construction used to be riveted together. Then we moved from rivets to welding and everybody initially distrusted it. Particularly after the First World War, when we were building a ship per week using welding, as it was quicker to join the metal together. But, unfortunately, welding was in its infancy and the technology was not there, people didn’t fully understand the welding process. So a lot of those wartime ships broke in half and sank. As a result, people doubted welding, but gradually as we learned more about the process, we abandoned riveting and now you won’t see many things being riveted at all. Industry is now moving away from welding to cold bonding. So in certain industries, in maintenance, I see cold bonding taking over from hot welding.

Marina Silva is the marketing supervisor for Belzona Polymerics Ltd.

About Belzona

Established in 1952, Belzona has pioneered innovative polymer technology that has revolutionised industrial repair and maintenance procedures. Belzona is a leading company in the design and manufacture of polymer repair composites and industrial protective coatings for the repair, protection and improvement of machinery, equipment, buildings and structures.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.