Hoists on the high seas

30 November 2011

In the second of a two part series on the oil and gas sector, Phil Bishop reports on developments in offshore lifting.

There is much more to offshore lifting than pedestal cranes, davits, and winches on oil platforms and ships.

Applications range from general materials handling and operations specific to offshore, such as blow-out prevention handling systems, mooring and tensioning floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessels, pulling cables and pipelines.

While there are general maritime and oceanographic applications offshore, it is the energy sector that generates most demand.

This is no longer just about oil and gas; the recent development of offshore wind farms has created a lot of work for the crane industry, not only lifting towers and turbines into place but also laying cables — all of which need to be pulled by huge winches.

Offshore contractors saw their activity decline significantly over the 2008–10 period, in line with the global decline, although not as severely as the fall seen by onshore builders and civil engineering contractors. In 2011, however, business has picked up.

Saipem, for example, reports: “The first half of 2011 saw an improvement in levels of activity in the offshore sector compared with 2010. Following the significant decrease seen over the last two years as a result of the global economic crisis, offshore investments registered moderate growth during the first six months of 2011. This recovery was aided by the price of Brent crude, which generally traded at between $110–$120 a barrel, representing a significant increase over 2010 that was in part due to the unrest in North Africa.”

However, crane and hoist companies contacted for this article all report that demand from the offshore sector held up relatively strongly throughout the period of economic turbulence, with contractors continuing to invest in equipment during the downturn.

The offshore oil and gas industries are a key market for UK crane builder J Barnsley Cranes. “We are working on projects in Australia, Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Norway,” reports managing director Jim Satchwell. Like many crane builders in the offshore business, J Barnsley Crane uses Stahl explosion-proof components.

Says Satchwell: “The majority of our cranes are manufactured for zones 1 and 2 hazardous areas, being explosion-protected in accordance with ATEX and IECEx. We are able to manufacture EOT cranes up to 100t with spans up to 35m and currently have eight 100t cranes in production. We also manufacture an extensive range of ATEX spark resistant manual chain hoists and trolleys included an ultra-low headroom version all with capacities from 500kg to 20t.”

Explosion-proof equipment is required in any environment where the presence of gases, fuels or vapours means that equpiment that doesn’t make electric sparks is required.

ATEX (Atmosphères Explosibles) is the European standard that governs the manufacture and use of equipment designed for explosion-prone environments.

Satchwell says that cranes built for offshore use have to be tested even more thoroughly than usually, including long travel motion under full load. “This is a very important requirement, ensuring that the crane will work first time, when site rectification costs and down time are prohibitive due to the remote location of most sites,” he says. J Barnsley Cranes recently supplied a 25t explosion protected (zone 1) semi goliath crane for a petrochemical floating storage unit (FSU) vessel. Located on deck, in the bow section, the crane has a 25m lifting height, non-sparking rack and pinion cross and long travel drives that facilitate operation at sea. Other features include remote control with pendant pushbutton back up, floodlighting and hook exclusion zones — all explosion-protected.

When it comes to offshore lifting equipment, one of the biggest names in the business is JD Neuhaus (JDN). As a specialist in air-powered hoists, all JDN equipment is inherently explosion proof and well suited to hazardous environments. The standard rating is EX II 2 GD IIA/II 3 GD IIB T4, with higher classifications also available on request. JDN supplies hoists with lift capacities ranging from 25kg up to 100t, to API7K certification. Corrosion resistance is an option. JDN is developing specialized handling products capable of undertaking underwater operations with the minimum of maintenance requirements. Two hoists, the Profi 3Ti and 6Ti offering 3.2t and 6.3t lift capacities respectively, have been introduced as specialised underwater products.

These incorporate high performance sealing qualities and include a purpose designed hand valve for easy operation by gloved divers. They have been tested and approved by UMC International, a company that specialises in underwater maintenance and repairs.

Optional air or hydraulic operation is available for operation at depths of 70m, together with variable speed control and overload protection provided as standard.

Both units have 3kW vane motors, with 3m chain lifts as standard and 2m cables for control unit operation. Optional cable and chain lengths can be accommodated, together with uprated hoists for operation in deeper waters if required.

JDN hoists are also popular for blow-out prevention (BOP) handling systems. Arthur Hedley, who joined as managing director of the UK subsidiary last year, estimates that between 40% and 50% of all BOP systems in the North Sea are raised and lowered by JDN hoists.

JD Neuhaus in the UK used to sell through distributors. Recently the company has opted to go direct in this country only, opening up premises in the Scottish oil capital of Aberdeen and also renting out equipment to North Sea operators. The rental business is a new area for JDN but it seems to be going well, with 150 rental units all now out working.

“We are seeing a real purple patch. Activity in the rental business is booming. As a company, we are seeing levels of activity that we have never seen before. We are extremely busy. It is an exciting time for the company.”

The business did take a hit in the global credit crisis in 2008, with sales down 25%. “But now we are 30% ahead of where we have ever been before. We are doubling in size this year.”

He acknowledges that the boom cannot last indefinitely, but at the moment he can see no end to it.

JDN benefits from a vertically diverse customer base. “We deal with small engineering companies right through to the oil companies themselves, such as Shell, BP and Conoco.”

Hedley says that in the past the company was not “proactive in getting our products specified by engineers at the design stage”. This is now changing, he says, and he is also exploring different ways of packaging the product, offering preventative maintenance options, for example, and leasing options.

While JDN is only offering hoists and winches for hire in the UK currently, it is still busy in other markets around the world, including a recent project for Bardex Corporation, based in Goleta, California.

Bardex was contracted by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) to design and build the mooring system for a FPSO vessel. The ultimate client is Elf Petroleum Nigeria (EPNL), a Nigerian subsidiary of French Oil company Total. A number of overhead cranes were evaluated before Bardex opted for a JDN hydraulic overhead crane.

The FPSO vessel is used as a temporary storage unit for oil or gas from offshore production platforms before it is transported by a pipeline or oil tanker to the storage depot. Hoists used to manoeuvre equipment both on and around the FPSO. Loads are heavy and the environment is harsh.

Instead of procuring 16 separate chain jack tensioning systems (four per corner of the FPSO and each rated at 18t) it was determined that one unit per corner could be used, and a system of four overhead cranes used to move one chain jack tensioning system for use in all four corners of the FPSO. Additionally, the specially designed mooring system included 16 fairlead stoppers, each weighing in at almost 25t.

A system like this had never been built before and JDN claims that it was the only crane builder in the world capable of supplying it to specification and on time. It comprised a hydraulically powered overhead crane with a hoist lift capacity of 18t, designed to withstand daily ocean environmental conditions with a high atmospheric moisture content.

While the likes of Stahl and JDN are firmly established with their explosion-protected equipment for the oil and gas industries, others are looking to take them on. Singapore-based MHE-Demag, which says it is the market leader in material handling equipment in Southeast Asia, has plans to double its worldwide market share in explosion-proof lifting equipment over the next few years.

MHE-Demag is a joint venture between the Singapore trading group Jebsen & Jessen (SEA) and Germany’s Demag Cranes and Components. It has a regional network spanning 11 countries, with eight factories, 35 service centres and more than 1,100 employees, so it is certainly equipped to achieve its ambitions.

“MHE-Demag has been manufacturing ATEX-certified explosion proof equipment in our Singapore facility since October 2007,” says Bill Chua, who has been tasked with leading MHE-Demag’s sales and marketing efforts in this arena.

“Designed and developed by our group of researchers, our explosion proof equipment is highly sought after in Asia, Europe and the Middle-East, and we are one of the few ATEX certified manufacturers in Southeast Asia.”

While ATEX certification for explosion proof equipment is only mandatory in the European Union, it is recognised as a global benchmark, Chua says. MHEDemag’s explosion proof equipment is also IEC certified. IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) describes itself as “the world’s leading organisation for the preparation and publication of International Standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies”.

MHE-Demag’s explosion-proof cranes and electric hoists are exported to all parts of the world. Joint venture partner Demag buys the explosion-proof equipment of MHE-Demag for its own global projects. Apart from complete explosion-proof cranes, the supply includes slewing jibs, wire-rope hoists, electric chain hoists, spark-proof chain blocks and air hoists.

The name Lebus has always been associated with the oil industry, back to the 1920s when company founder Frank LeBus supplied equipment to the oilfields of Texas. Today, it works both offshore and onshore, supply its eponymous spooling system and winch drums to manufacturers of lifting and winching machinery. Its UK subsidiary, Lebus International Engineers, is the only company in the group that makes its own complete winch systems, having acquired the Lancashire-based deck machinery manufacturer Robertsons Winches 30 years ago.

Technical director Jeff Wilson says that he has been “extremely busy for the past six years”. He adds: “There is a lot of trenching going on, laying cables for offshore wind farms, pulling the plough to make the trench.” These winches are typically up to 40t capacity, storing and pulling 3km of 60mm-diameter steel cable. Sometimes space is limited on the vessel so innovation is required in winch design, using axial spooling systems.

A recent project for Wilson saw Lebus supplying Technip with a winch to be used for handling a remote welding tool that is lowered to the sea bed to repair or extend pipelines.

The welding tool is a 30t piece of kit, he says, that straddles the pipeline. Technip’s client for this is Statoil in Norway.

If winch and hoist manufacturers are benefitting from the health of the offshore market, then so must be the wire rope producers.

Bridon, which has developed the Hydra rope series specifically for offshore use, reports growing demand in the oil and gas market.

Offshore activity in the Gulf of Mexico has been slow to recover following the lifting of the moratorium on drilling, but elsewhere offshore activity has continued to recover steadily. To meet growing demand in the offshore sector for high performance wire rope, Bridon is building a new £20m ($30m) factory at the deep-water port on the River Tyne in Newcastle, UK.

It is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2012 and will focus on the production of ropes up to weights of more than 600t.

Bridon has also completed a project to increase its manufacturing capability of large multi-strand ropes in its factory in Gelsenkirchen in Germany and upgraded its wire mill in Doncaster, UK.

With so much in the offshore universe huge and getting bigger, Italian wire rope producer Redaelli holds the distinction of a citation in the Guinness Book of Records for the heaviest steel wire rope in the world.

Redaelli has recently made a wire rope measuring 3,850m in length and 152mm in diameter, weighing 420t. It is to be used on the world’s largest pipe laying vessel, Saipem’s CastorOne, currently under construction at Keppel Shipyard in Singapore.

The world’s previous biggest steel wire rope was also made by Redaelli for another new Saipem pipe laying vessel. Last year it supplied a thicker but short rope — 3,020m long, 164mm in diameter, and just over 361t in weight — for the deepwater field development ship FDS 2. On both vessels, the huge ropes are stored on and pulled by massive Rema traction winches.

As Jeff Wilson of Lebus puts it: “Everything is getting deeper, bigger and stronger.” And that is what makes the offshore sector so dynamic for the crane business.