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Fifty Years of Dynamic Positioning

By MarEx 2012-02-14 16:59:00

Despite current weakness, the outlook for DP providers is strong, and the technology just keeps getting better – and cheaper.

By Art Garcia

Hard to believe, but dynamic positioning (DP) marks its 50th anniversary this year. According to industry insiders, the global market is slowly improving with heavy competition that’s leading to lower prices and a likely industry shakeout. At the same time, shipowners and other customers are demanding quality and reliability in addition to greater integration of technologies as they look to new opportunities, among them wind farm support and emerging markets.

“It’s fair to say the market has been a bit slow the past one-and-a-half years. Not very slow, but slower than it was before the economic crisis,” said Frode Klepsvik, Managing Director for Marine Technologies Pte. Ltd. in Singapore and Vice President of its parent, Marine Technologies LLC. “But now we see clearly that things are moving ahead with many signs that they’re picking up again.” Michael Ford, Vice President of Commercial Operations at L3 Dynamic Positioning and Control Systems near San Diego, California, says the company’s sales this year have been an improvement over 2010 “but things are still in the recovery process, at least stateside after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill early last year. Around the world things are a little more robust because they weren’t affected by Deepwater Horizon.”

At Converteam in Massy, France, recently acquired by GE Energy, a spokesman reports that both the company’s sales and the overall market are showing signs of growth “and potential for significant further growth.” Converteam is a DP pioneer, having begun making the systems in the early 1970s. By today’s standards, its first installation for a coring vessel was very basic “but effective. It was based on mini-computers ? punched paper-tape programming and hardware that would fill the entirety of a modern bridge,” the spokesperson said. Also reporting a good year in product sales is Keith Park, Business Development Manager at MDL in York, England, with the increased volume credited largely to sales of its Fanbeam 5 laser radar DP sensor for offshore vessels.

Growth in the Golden Triangle
Meanwhile, marine market research firm Douglas-Westwood forecasts a strong recovery in vessel demand in its recent report, “The World Subsea Vessel Operations Market 2011-2015.” It predicts expenditures growing by 52 percent to $72 billion over the period. “Global demand for subsea vessels is expected to climb beyond 310,000 days for the forecast period, a 28 percent increase on the previous five years,” said Simon Robb, the report’s lead author. “Robust growth is expected with annual expenditures set to rise from $11.2 billion in 2011 to $19 billion by 2015.”

The deepwater “Golden Triangle” (West Africa – Gulf of Mexico – Brazil) is projected to account for 54 percent of global spending over the report’s forecast period. Africa will remain the largest single market with more than $13.7 billion required over the next five years. Despite a dip in activity in North America during 2011-2012, vessel expenditure is forecast to total almost $13 billion, a 21 percent jump over the previous half-decade. Latin America is seen as becoming the third-largest market, driven directly by Petrobras’ long-term deepwater and ultra-deepwater strategy. The Asian and Australasian regions should also see strong growth.

In looking at new territorial markets, Marine Technologies is focusing on China and India and notes that South Korea is becoming more active in many new electronic products and services, not just DP. “For sure, all those markets are very important for us to follow up,” said Frode Klepsvik, “and, of course, more developed markets like the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil are always interesting because there’s a lot of activity there.” L3 similarly has its eyes on Brazil and a substantial number of upcoming projects that the industry is well aware of. L3 has a Brazil presence with an office it opened in Rio de Janeiro this year. “We’re down there on almost a weekly basis helping support that office,” stated Michael Ford. “We’ve been doing business in Brazil for a number of years, dating back to drill rigs equipped with our system back in the 1990s.”

Mandarin, Anyone?
China is not ignoring DP, completing final sea trials this summer of its first sixth-generation DP3 drilling rig that includes a sophisticated suite of technology. HYSY-981, built by Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding Company for the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, is called a major accomplishment for Chinese engineering. The rig towers more than 40 stories high, measures 114 meters long and 79 meters wide and weighs 30,670 tons. It was designed for operations in the South China Sea, West Africa and Southeast Asia. HYSY-981 is equipped with a specially designed Kongsberg Maritime integrated control system featuring extensive DP, navigation and automation systems. Its triple-redundant DP system offers a complete range of functionality.

Karl Beier, owner of Beier Radio in Belle Chase, Louisiana, said his company’s DP system can speak in any language, including Chinese. “We have a computer voice that tells you you’ve got a system alarm and this is what’s happening,” he said. “You can select that in quite a number of voices. I believe we have all the major languages of the world covered. In fact, we do a fair number of training classes for foreigners. Right now, we’re getting a lot of business out of West Africa and some from Southeast Asia, but most of it is for the U.S.”

Lower Prices and More Innovation
The presence of more players in the DP market has led to competition everywhere, observed Marine Technologies’ Klepsvik, and that’s meant a general softening of prices: “When the market is slower, of course, the competition gets tougher. We’ve seen a reduction of prices all over the place, a consequence of all the increased competition.” L3’s Ford agrees. Park of MDL said the market is more price-sensitive because DP technology has become much more widely adopted. According to Karl Beier, “Everybody’s worried about cost now. The less expensive and simpler the system, the more appeal it has.”

Besides lower prices, customers are telling DP providers they want efficiency and reliability. “Our customers are always focused on all of these and so are we,” said the Converteam spokesperson. Other customer demands are faster turnaround and high quality, said MDL’s Park: “What customers are looking for from our perspective is better reflectors for use with our system. Because it’s laser-based it requires reflectors on the site of the offshore installation to work. We’re starting to see many more requests for what we call prism clusters, which increase reliability and safety. We’re getting more requests from oil companies for these kinds of things.”

Another trend is more innovation. “We’re seeing fewer requests for DP 1s and more for DP 2s,” reported Klepsvik. “It looks like the industry standard is moving up the ladder, slowly, but in that direction.” Beier notes a similar trend: “I don’t know if the BP oil spill was the catalyst or it was just going to happen anyway, but we’re seeing companies that are requiring DP 2 versions where before DP 1 vessels were more than adequate to contract with oil companies. We’re seeing now that some companies are setting standards for DP vessels. That’s going to mean some big upgrades because there are a lot of DP 1 vessels. That’s good for the industry because any chance you get to upgrade your customer from one model to the next, that’s good business.”

Integration, a combining of technologies, is also on the advancing DP agenda. The Kongsberg system on China’s HYSY-981 drill rig allows for high flexibility and the possibility to upgrade. It consists of a triple-redundant controller, the K-Pos DPC 3, and three operator stations (K-Pos OS). The controller unit contains three powerful control computers and I/O units to provide an interface to position-reference systems, sensors and dual LAN interface for various kinds of propellers, thrusters and rudders via local process stations. The Kongsberg navigation scope on the project is an ECDIS/Integrated Bridge System.

Many new bridge designs now are more modular in terms of operator stations that can perform multiple functions. “From the positioning technology side of things, it’s more about integration, where you’ve got different technologies being combined to increase the viability of those technologies,” offered MDL’s Park. Concern for operator ergonomics has meant DP system manufacturers providing chair solutions that bring all of the systems the operator needs to interface with into one location. Ford at L3 sees chair solutions as a growing area “though so far we haven’t seen a huge call for it.”

Touch Screen and Remote Diagnostics
Another technology being increasingly adopted is touch screen. “We are pretty much the first ones who went all-in on touch screens,” asserted L3’s Ford. “All of our systems are exclusively operated using a touch screen. There’s a track ball but it’s purely as a secondary input into the system. Touch screens are definitely becoming more prevalent in the industry.” So are remote diagnostics, now offered in some form with most DP systems. “The critical thing to remember is that remote diagnostics still require a pretty substantial and robust satellite connection to the boat, and that usually ends up being the critical point for a large drilling rig,” said Ford.

“As long as the vessel has an adequate system, we can call through the Internet to the system’s computer and diagnose the problem,” explained Karl Beier. “We’re doing this regularly around the world. We can tell the crew what it needs to do to solve the problem so the customer doesn’t have to take the boat off the job and go in for repairs.” He said more than half the service calls his company receives are actually about peripheral problems, not the DP system. “By having remote diagnostics we’re able to advise the customer and, instead of them paying us to go to the boat, we save them both time and money.”

Remote diagnostics has been around for years in other industries but only for the past four or five years in the marine industry. Beier Radio has provided the service for three years. “Remote diagnostics is a huge step forward for boat owners in reducing their cost of ownership and improving the performance of their vessels by improving their on-job time vs. their down time,” Beier said. Sounds like a good time to get onboard. – MarEx

Art Garcia writes frequently for The Maritime Executive