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ROVs, lasers, and more open a world of future possibilities for the storied tug company

By Hilary Reeves

Foss Naval Architect and Marine Engineer Amanda Dayton knew early on that she’d be pursuing a career in engineering.

“I went to multiple Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) summer engineering camps at different universities throughout high school based on a math teacher’s recommendation, took drafting and vocational engineering classes, and job shadowed every engineer I met: environmental, mechanical, aerospace, chemical, and naval architect,” she laughed.

Dayton poses in front of a Foss tug.
Foss Naval Architect and Marine Engineer Amanda Dayton was encouraged to pursue engineering early in her education, sparking a life-long passion for science and technology.

Dayton grew up on the thousands of inland lakes dotting southwest Michigan, choosing the University of Michigan after high school due to its variety of strong, reputable programs – particularly Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. She kept an open mind, taking engineering classes in other fields, but ultimately focusing on naval architecture and graduating first with a bachelor’s and then, a semester later, a master’s degree.

“Naval Architecture offered a variety of career paths in several types of industries, and I found my studies and internships extraordinarily interesting,” said Dayton.

Her first job out of college was with a Seattle-based marine design and engineering company called Elliott Bay Design Group.

The move west

“I’d never been to Seattle before, but as soon as the plane landed for my interview, I knew I wanted to live here,” she said. “I relocated, and shared a townhouse with two other friends from college who had also accepted jobs in Seattle – one at Glosten and the other at Jensen – and they still work there today.”

After working at Elliott Bay for about a year, Dayton realized that she needed – “yearned for” – more practical experience building commercial vessels. She took a new job in Anacortes, a town north of Seattle best known for its ferry service to the San Juan Islands, and worked at Dakota Creek Industries (DCI) as a Project Engineer for the next 10 years.

“I adored Anacortes, and my coworkers and I learned so much more than I ever would have in an office-only environment. I’m passionate about continued learning, and thrive on devising new ways to apply cutting-edge tools and technologies to the workplace to increase productivity, which was supported and encouraged at DCI.”

During a lull in production at DCI, Dayton took a temporary contract position performing piping system design work with Superior Energy Services.

“It was a good opportunity for a few months, and I thought I would be back to DCI, but it’s the marine industry after all, so those few months turned into a year, and a simple piping design job turned into a Project Engineer job,” she explained. “I became an integral team member for the design and modification of a 40-year-old, ice-class cargo barge into a USCG-certified and ABS-classed Floating Offshore Installation (FOI). Foss was contracted to provide tug and operational support for the unmanned FOI. I also met my husband through the Arctic Challenger project; when the contract was over, we started a family and moved to Seattle, where my husband started at Foss as a Project Manager.”

Continuing Education

Two years ago, Dayton also joined Foss in her current position as a Naval Architect for the engineering department, Harbor Marine Group (HMG). She said that prior to joining Foss, she decided to become more adaptable to the job market, beginning another master’s program in Unmanned Systems through Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

“The classes have been heavily research-based, and I’m often asked to write about new, innovative applications for my assignments and corroborate the idea with previous research,” she said. “The robotics industry has been booming for a few decades in the military, industrial, medical and civilian sectors, and across the ground, air, marine and space environments. Since my background was in the marine industry and specifically shipbuilding, it was easy and natural for me to be inspired to use robotics to improve production and operations efficiency.”

According to Dayton, the marine robotics applications are more complicated and controversial than the other robotics fields, and more challenging to break into due to the traditional nature and financial risks associated with shipping and shipbuilding.

“The technology isn’t new, but adoption has been slow, and the reasons for this are not clear. It’s actually a thesis topic I’m considering.”

Foss’s future tech

Dayton prepares to lower a marine ROV into water.
Dayton saw an opportunity to use Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) to conduct work that previously required divers, the new technology has enhanced safety and made work more cost effective for Foss customers.
Dayton lowers a marine ROV into water near a Foss tug.
The ROV Dayton uses in her work as a Foss Engineer is lightweight and quick to deploy.
Dayton operates an ROV from dry land.
Once deployed, Dayton uses a screen to view and direct the ROV underwater. High resolution cameras capture video and still images, allowing her to share real time information with crews working on the boats as well as document work for future reference.

Since joining Foss two years ago, Dayton has been involved in numerous notable project triumphs, most recently the Continuous Improvement Initiative Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) program implemented at the shipyard for underwater hull surveys and blocking checks before dry-docking.

ROV image of underside of a tug
The ROV captures an image of a snagged crab pot rope on the underside of a tug, with damage to the propeller ruled out, the tug was able to quickly resume service.

“After writing a research paper about ROVs and their application in shipyards for school, I became so passionate about acquiring the technology for Foss that I developed a business plan, performed a market and financial analysis, created multiple presentations, held meetings with anyone in the company willing to listen, and volunteered myself to present at meetings at various marine organizations, such as the Women’s International Shipping and Trade Association and the Society of Port Engineers of Puget Sound,” she said. “Thankfully my teammates at the shipyard have been incredibly supportive, and we’ve even been able to beat my financial projections.”

Within four months of purchasing the ROV, Dayton said, the equipment has had a 450-percent return on investment, with a total measurable savings and earnings for the shipyard and our customers of $37,000. Dayton is also currently working with the U.S. Coast Guard to develop a certified ROV program for performing Alternative Hull Examinations or annual Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement (ACSA) surveys.

“I have the utmost appreciation for Jon Hie, Kevin Smith, and our dry-docking labor force for being open-minded, flexible, and patient enough to be supportive and encouraging of new technology,” she said. “It’s critical to have a team of influential people willing to leverage advanced technologies in order to stay competitive in the current market.”

Another project on Dayton’s books is developing a laser scanning for continuous improvement, developing a library of hull forms and internal compartments from vessels dry-docked at the shipyard. The three-dimensional models created from the scanner have dozens of applications.

“While on the dry docks scanning, I’m often approached by vendors and customers with questions and curiosity, and they often come up with different ideas of how the technology could be applied,” she said.

 The future of work

Dayton is adamant that, despite seemingly endless discussion to the contrary, advances in technology do not mean less reliance on a flesh-and-blood workforce.

“To summarize a video I’ve recently watched called, ‘The big debate about the future of work, explained” on the Vox YouTube channel published on Nov 13, 2017,’ people have had automation anxiety since the early 1920s when machines became more prominent on farms and in factories threatening to cause ‘vast unemployment and social unrest.’”

The video explains that although guards used to open and close the doors on subway trains, workers physically took tickets before there were turnstiles, and railroad workers, telephone operators, gas pumpers, and thousands of workers have been displaced, there is no shortage of jobs.

“It’s easy to see the jobs that will be replaced, but almost impossible to understand the future jobs that will be created,” said Dayton. “There will be new jobs based on designing and maintaining new technologies, and even new industries built based on them, for instance computers and the Internet yielded AOL, Google, Amazon, YouTube, etcetera. Higher productivity means companies can expand, creating more jobs, and/or lowering their prices, which enables more product sales, which in turn creates more jobs. Even though jobs are replaced, automation does not affect the total number of jobs in the economy, because of these offsetting affects. The overall need for human work doesn’t go away.”

In the next five years, Dayton sees Foss as a company investing in employee training and gaining more competence in a variety of aspects of vessel operations, expanding its skills beyond tugs and barges to perhaps ferry or passenger transport operations.

“Wind energy is a burgeoning market, which could provide Foss new opportunities,” she said. “The Project Services Group and HMG could perform project management or owner’s representation as services to external clients. The Foss Shipyard could form shipyard repair teams that could travel to other locations similar to working at Terminal 5, but for external clients.”

Dayton referenced a 2004 article concluding that “human level speech recognition has proved to be an elusive goal,” when discussing the propensity to underestimate the capabilities of automation.

“We can chuckle today, 14 years later, knowing household names like ‘Google’ and ‘Alexa’ the way that we do,” she said. “In order to stay on the cutting edge, it’s important to stay humble, flexible, open, and willing to learn and invest. In 10 years, Foss could be leading the industry with vessel situational awareness and automation programs, which would greatly increase safety and bring vessel data and operations shoreside in real time.”

Dayton’s plans for the future include either the development of new business lines for Foss, or becoming more involved in business operations and management.

“My career has presented various surprises along the way,” she concluded. “Naval Architecture seems like a rare field with little opportunity, but there have always been plenty of job opportunities for me, even during times when the economy was struggling.  There have also been career opportunities all over the world, which has been surprising. I was also surprised with how much more there was to learn about industry after graduating college; college was actually just the very beginning.”

Read more about Dayton in Foss’s Towbitts newsletter.