Heavy lifting gets versatile

The global offshore heavy lift market is fragmented, but evolving, with new vessels expected to bring a step change in capability and flexibility. Elaine Maslin reports.

Heerema Marine Contractor’s new-build Aegir is at Huisman’s yard in the Netherlands having its multi-lay pipelay system installed. The vessel is due to set sail to the Gulf of Mexico in September, with her first project working for Anadarko, Lucius.Offshore heavy lifting capability has increased in waves, from the early heavy lifts of just a few hundred tonne, to a step up to 5000 tonne in the late 1970s, and then topping 10,000 tonne in the 1980s. Floatover lifting, using barges and then vessels, including for transport, has since emerged as the dominant force in the ultra-heavy lift market, taking lifting capability up to 30,000 tonne.

Change is coming once more, but, says Peter Baggaley, managing director at London Offshore Consultants, it is more about harsh and deepwater capability, and confidence in engineering than new technology.

A step change in capability will come from Allsea’s dual-hull Pieter Schelte (OE, May 2013), in the ultraheavy lift space, and an emerging fleet of more versatile heavy lift vessels, fitted with pipelay and subsea lifting capability, Baggaley says.

“A lot of technology is coming together [on the Pieter Schelte] to come up with a vessel that can do transportation, as well as installation, in deepwater harsh environments using dynamic positioning,” he says. “That gives a lot more scope and availability for operation.”

“What we are also seeing, in terms of development, is for [3000-5000-tonne] heavy lift vessels to be much more flexible. We have the Aegir (OE, April 2012) coming from Heerema Marine Contractors, for example. It has heavy lift capability of 4000 tonne, but it is also a pipelay vessel that can reellay and J-lay and perform deepwater installation down to 3500m. This is not new technology, but putting the technology together is new and the scale of the vessels is new.”

Baggaley says that engineering solutions are also becoming smarter as contractors are involved in projects earlier, in turn increasing confidence in lifting operations.

The ship-shape segment of the heavy lift market has seen growth, and good utilization rates, especially those with lifting capacity of more than 2000 tonne, says Gregory Brown, consultant at Infield Systems.

The global fleet in this segment has risen from 12 in 2008, to 20 this year, according to Infield. This includes the new combination-type vessels, such the Aegir, which is due to start its first contract working for Anadarko in the Gulf of Mexico this autumn.

Overall, the offshore lifting market is dominated by an aging fleet of low-end shallow water-focused units with lift capacities below 1000 tonne, mostly lift vessels and barges built in the 1970s and 1980s, Brown says.

Many were operating in the US Gulf of Mexico, but moved to more benign water areas including Southeast Asia – where the strongest demand lays – the Middle East and Mexico, after conventional activity plummeted following the onset of onshore shale gas in the US. These units, while still in use, have low utilization rates.

The 5000-tonne and higher market, dominated by traditional derrick crane lift semisubmersibles, such as Saipem’s Saipem 7000 and Heerema Marine Contractor’s Thialf, has also remained flat, with little new tonnage introduced, due to limited work and the finance required to fund a new build, Brown says.

Lifting capacity in this segment has also plateaued at about 11,000 tonne due to physical limitations, Baggaley says.

Instead, lifting capacity growth comes from the now-established floatover market, with the use of rapid ballasting on purpose-built vessels and barges to control the crucial touch down phase. Offshore lifts of integrated decks have already been performed at approaching 30,000 tonne, Baggaley says.

The largest growth segment in offshore lifting has been in jackups, according to Infield. The number of units is expected to reach 37 in 2014, from just eight in 2008, but then plateau until 2017.

These units have been built mostly to serve the European offshore wind installation market, driven by orders from Seajacks, Fred. Olsen, Windcarrier and Swire Blue Ocean, Brown says, with some heading to Southeast Asia for use installing oil and gas facilities.

Regionally, by 2017, Asia is expected to have the highest demand for heavy lift vessels, based on vessel days, at 3685, compared to 3345 predicted this year, according to Infield. Close behind Asia is Africa, with demand of 3493 vessel days expected in 2017, a significant increase on this year’s 995; this is followed by North America, with demand for 3317 vessel days in 2017, up from 2171 in 2013. Europe and Australia will see increases in demand, but at lower levels. Latin America will remain close to a peak of 1721 reached this year until 2017.

Based on market share, demand will nearly double between 2013 and 2017 for subsea installation, from 1326 to 2418 vessel days. Most of the demand in 2017 will still be for platform installation, at 8640 vessel days, followed by platform removal, at 3923 vessel days.

The offshore decommissioning market had been expected to drive demand for offshore lifting. However, it has yet to materialize on a significant level, due to continuing high oil prices pushing cessation of production dates further out, Brown adds.

Looking ahead, Baggaley says challenges for the market will include operating in arctic waters. At issue in particular, the speed at which weather changes in the Arctic. Other challenges Baggaley sees are the competency of newer operators working in the offshore renewables sector, and not working at the high standards expected for offshore.

A further concern is the use of dynamic positioning (DP), specifically, understanding its capabilities. He says he has had experiences where a vessel, with DP2 capability, has been selected for a project without the operator realizing that the system would not meet the requirements needed because the capability is not through the full range of the compass. OE

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