Change and evolution have kept the dynamic positioning sector alive amid difficult times. Mark Pointon looks at how the industry has evolved and where it is heading
As we approach the end of 2018, the offshore support industry is slowly recovering from a sustained downturn that has seen major changes in its landscape. A consistent oil price between US$60 - US$70 a barrel has led to an increase in exploration, which in turn has bolstered the confidence of vessel operators. As an integral part of this sector, the dynamic positioning (DP) industry is also seeing an upturn in fortunes, albeit at the expense of some big names that have fallen by the wayside.
The obvious example is Farstad Shipping. Once a ‘Blue-Chip’ company, it fell victim to the catastrophic fall in oil prices in 2015 and ultimately became part of the SolstadFarstad Group in 2017. In October 2018 the company, which operates 141 vessels, changed its name to Solstad Offshore ASA and a much respected name in the offshore shipping world disappeared for good.
“The top five OSV companies own or operate approximately 900 vessels between them and the fundamental issue of oversupply remains unresolved
In his keynote speech at the 2018 Annual OSJ Conference, Solstad Offshore chief executive Lars Peder Solstad noted the market was now saturated with vessels, making competition for jobs intense. He soberingly compared the charter rate for an OSV at the time as, “equivalent to having a lawyer in the office for a day or two!”
The Farstad name steams toward the horizon
While the average OSV owner now owns five vessels, the top five OSV companies own or operate approximately 900 vessels between them, and the fundamental issue of oversupply remains unresolved.
And consolidation is not restricted to vessel ownership. The acquisition of the Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine business by Kongsberg earlier this year saw the merging of two major DP system manufacturing companies. Both organisations have a global presence; Kongsberg is a world leader in automation, navigation and control systems, while Rolls-Royce has proven expertise in propellers, propulsion systems and ship design.
Chief executive and president of Kongsberg Geir Haoy has stated that bringing the two companies together “positioned them as a significant supplier of complete solutions for the future maritime industry”.
An equally significant development involved the acquisition by Wärtsilä of L3 Dynamic Positioning systems, Transas and Guidance Marine.
Both developments, while primarily focused on developing the concept of the autonomous vessel, will inevitably impact the operation and development of DP systems and the associated vessel sensors and positioning systems. An example of this can already be seen in the development of targetless laser and microwave systems, RangeGuard and SceneGuard, introduced recently by Guidance Marine.
Operationally, the DP landscape is constantly evolving. During its inception period and extending into the early- to mid-1990s, a commonly heard phrase in the industry was “you’re only a real DPO if you work on DSVs”.
These days, the scope of DP operations has spread to encompass a diverse range of operational areas that includes: platform supply; AHTS; ROV; pipelay; well intervention; construction; inspection maintenance and repair; MODUs; and shuttle tankers. Each brings its own unique challenges, driving developments in operational best practice and technology.
The latest big developments have occurred in the renewable energy sector, where a whole new industry has been developed globally around the construction, maintenance and servicing of offshore windfarms. These constructions are primarily in near coastal areas that have associated strong tidal conditions, leading to the new acronym SOV (surface operations vessel).
Windfarms have driven the development of a new type of offshore vessel, the SOV
Another interesting development in the renewables sector is the concept of utilising self-propelled jack-up vessels for the installation of offshore wind turbines. A pioneer in this area is Seajacks, a UK-based company that operates five of the world’s most advanced jack-up units. These vessels also meet the stringent European Oil and Gas sector regulations.
Seajacks is utilising self-propelled jack-up vessels to install offshore wind turbines
Revising best practice
Keeping pace with technological and operational developments has always been a challenge for the authorities tasked with producing industry guidance and best practice. Recent years have seen a number of updates to important guidance documents from IMO, IMCA, The Marine Technology Society (MTS) and The Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF), among others.
June 2017 saw the publication of the IMO document MSC.1/Circ. 1580 – Guidelines for Vessels and Units with Dynamic Positioning (DP) Systems. This document provides an update to its predecessor MSC 645 - Guidelines for Vessels with Dynamic Positioning Systems and is applicable to all new DP vessels built after June 2017.
Key updates to IMCA documents include the February 2017 Rev 3 of IMCA M103 – Guidelines for the Design and Operation of Dynamically Positioned Vessels and the September 2016 Rev 2 of IMCA M117 – Guidelines for the Training and Experience of Key DP Personnel
“IMCA M103 Rev 3 is a major re-write of its predecessor and includes design and operational guidance, as well as vessel-specific guidance for 17 different vessel types that utilise DP”
IMCA M103 Rev 3 is a major re-write of its predecessor and includes generic design and operational guidance, as well as vessel-specific guidance for 17 different vessel types that utilise DP. The design guidance focuses on the methods for creating fault-tolerant DP systems, based on the principles of redundancy. The operational guidance focuses on current good industry practice and draws from existing operational guidance.
IMCA M117 Rev 2 has been revised to reflect current industry practices and changes to the operating environment since the previous review. It includes some significant amendments, among them the definitions of key personnel required to safely and efficiently operate a DP vessel have been changed and are now far clearer.
In a change from IMCA’s long-term policy, this revision removes the primacy of the Nautical Institute DPO Training and Certification scheme, by recognising that there are a number of other DP training schemes available and various organisations that offer DP operator certification. Another welcome change is the inclusion of a section dedicated to the concept of continuous professional development, seen as an essential tool for promoting and maintaining competence.
Since its inception over 50 years ago, the DP industry has changed almost beyond recognition. The technology, rules and regulations, even the scope of the DP concept, have all evolved to remain relevant with a shipping industry that itself has undergone sizable changes. There is no reason to think that 50 years from now, our current approach to DP will be considered anything other than quaint.