The subsea umbilical does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the lifeline that keeps all of the oil and gas operations in the North Sea alive and kicking. The intricate arrays of pipes, hoses, risers and control systems need to be robust and resilient.
But with oil and gas exploration in increasingly deeper water and less benign ocean conditions, and the offshore renewables explosion requiring specialised pipework to carry thicker copper cables, then new research and testing is essential.
Oceaneering Umbilical Solutions (OUS), a global leader in the design and manufacture of subsea control umbilicals, has recently invested nearly £2m in a pioneering test, qualification and reliability laboratory in Scotland to evaluate and assimilate the long-term behaviour of umbilical cables.
The TQR facility at Rosyth, on the shores of the Firth of Forth – and an umbilical spools-length or two from another great engineering feat, the Forth Bridge – employs 284 engineers, sales and administration staff, serving a global market. But the Fife facility is keen to encourage young engineers from Scotland and the North of England to choose a career in subsea engineering work.
Greg Scott, OUS’s general manager for global management, says: “There is a war for talent in the offshore engineering sector. We need interested young people to understand that there are some lucrative and rewarding jobs in oil and gas. So bringing this testing facility to Rosyth underlines our commitment to Scotland and the UK’s engineering prowess.”
This battle resulted in the Rosyth operation taking a group of engineering undergraduates from nearby Heriot-Watt University for project work during their summer holidays, retaining them for a few extra weeks per year and then offering them eight-month full-time contracts after graduation.
A similar project is under way with Aberdeen University. “It’s a two-way benefit,” says Scott. “The students gain practical industry experience and we are able to see the calibre of the people coming through the universities.”
Mike Smith, the American-born head of the OUS centre in Rosyth, says umbilical systems have become a commodity with cut-throat pricing, so research and development to enhance the specification and design are crucial for Oceaneering.
“There are fresh challenges for the umbilical makers because we are operating in much harsher environments. In the Gulf of Mexico, they are now operating in depths of 11,000 feet, and we have umbilicals operating now at the depth of 9,000 feet. What we want to do is help the client by showing the optimal operational data. This is what our facility in Rosyth will help us to do.”
There are other factors, such as the significantly warmer waters off the Australian coast, where thermal dispersal has an impact on both performance and life-span. Greg Scott says: “The umbilical is a complex pipeline. It has to work in very extreme environments under pressure, temperature and movement with the tides and shifting ocean floors. It has to deal with power supplies and fluids and be extremely reliable. The offshore industry is extremely risk averse.”
The installation costs are high and clients in the past have bought the umbilicals almost off the shelf and been unable to properly evaluate the product. “Increasingly, there is more knowledge within the industry about what works for particular jobs, so we are looking at a collaborative design with the clients to help them implement their requirements at an optimal level,” he says.
“In-house tests of an umbilical’s operational behaviour at various stages of its life cycle is vital information for our clients and they’ll be reassured that our testing capability exceeds the set industry standards.” Umbilicals generally have a 25-30 year life-cycle but the operational stresses caused by ocean currents and tidal wave movement can cause fatigue and allows corrosion to set in earlier than anticipated. OUS says its investment in the TQR facility will help act as a safeguard against sudden operational failures.
Greg Scott says: “If an umbilical fails, oil and gas production stops. Although the umbilical is a comparatively inexpensive product within the whole energy production infrastructure, it is one of its most critical components. “We have been developing sophisticated testing to work out how to extend the life of umbilicals and we are modelling increased reliability.”
Oceaneering Umbilical Solutions’ design and manufacturing plant has a new 600m2 facility housing the team of specialist analysts who will evaluate test data and carry out performance tests, including the use of heavy crushing equipment and guillotines to simulate falls on a line. “We have made a significant investment in the new TQR centre,” says Mike Smith.
“Part of this will provide a comprehensive ‘data shop’ generating analysis which helps our proposition as a one-stop-shop for umbilical manufacture, test and supply.” The TQR laboratory can carry out testing to industry standard ISO 135628-5. OUS subcontracted much of this testing, but the TQR laboratory means better in-house understanding of how an umbilical performs.
Oceaneering Umbilical Solutions is a division of Oceaneering – a global oil field services and products firm, focusing on deepwater applications. Founded in 1964, Oceaneering has grown from an air and mixed gas diving business in the Gulf of Mexico to an advanced applied technology organisation operating around the world, currently with around 37% of the North Sea market working for many of the oil majors.