Marine contractors have made huge leaps in productivity

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THE Innovation, a 147-metre ship docked in Rotterdam, looks like a cross between an oil rig and a robot from a “Transformers” film. Her crane has been loading on giant pipes throughout the night. Soon the ship will travel to sea, where an automated hammer will drive the pipes into the ocean floor to support wind turbines. “Everything in our industry has become larger,” says Koen Vanderbeke of DEME, a Belgian dredging firm that owns the ship. “But we’ve become smarter, too.”

Unlike their counterparts on dry land, marine contractors have made big leaps in productivity in recent years. From dredging and land reclamation to offshore construction of oil platforms, costs have dropped even as the speed and quality of work have increased. In Belgium, home to two of the world’s five biggest dredgers, efficiency gains have been so large that they have skewed productivity figures for the entire building sector.

The improvements can be traced to industry consolidation and investment—things that have eluded most onshore builders. These trends have been spurred by large, demanding customers (usually governments and energy firms), as well as by the greater need for precision at sea, where a tiny slit in an oil pipe can prompt a catastrophe. As important, maritime projects have become so large and complex that firms often have no choice but to use machines rather than labour.

About 25 years ago the sector was fragmented. That changed as the ambitions of customers increased. Mergers and natural expansion resulted in five leaders: DEME and Jan De Nul in Belgium, Boskalis and Van Oord in the Netherlands and CHEC in China. The cost of a big ship, around €200m ($234m), and a persistent need to invest ensure that only the giants survive.

Mechanical improvements such as pumps and suction devices mean dredging ships can now break through harder material. Much manual work has been automated, from the placement of piles to the steadying of ships—GPS-guided bow thrusters have replaced anchors. As ships work in deeper, colder waters, underwater robots have supplanted divers.

Monitoring may be the biggest change. “We now measure everything,” says DEME’s Mr Vanderbeke, gesturing to the antennas on Innovation’s mast. Sensors track how fast the hammer is pounding, what the crane is up to, activity on the seabed and how these things interact. Such surveillance, complemented by computer simulations, helps avoid mistakes.

Another productivity-enhancer has been modular building which, both on land and at sea, can speed up construction. DEME is building an 8.6km-long quay in Singapore, using watertight concrete chambers made in a factory on land. “With the old method, you’d hammer each sheet pile,” says Alain Bernard, the firm’s boss.

Offshore productivity gains are now so big that they have changed the economic calculus for land itself. Cheaper dredging makes land reclamation more attractive. “In Amsterdam you pay around €1,000 for a square metre of land; we can now make new land in shallow water for just €300 per square metre,” says Pieter van Oord of Van Oord. In seaside cities such as Jakarta and Singapore, where land prices are up to ten times higher, the business case is even stronger. “You do the math.”

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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