By the time the oil price hit its USD 27 low this January, orders for offshore rigs and vessels had completely ground to a halt, forcing shipyards across Southeast Asia to look for ways to fill a gaping hole in their income.
Some are diversifying into cruise ships or fishing vessels, but many are betting on liftboats — self-propelling vessels with three or four legs which can jack them up 30-40m above the water, allowing them to do lifting work in shallow waters.
Some brokers are estimating that as many as a hundred new liftboats might be needed in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as oil companies start to decommission end-of-life, shallow-water, oil installations.
“This could be a booming market in the coming years,” said Patrik Silfver, Wärtsilä’s Area Manager for Marine Solutions Sales. “The offshore market is more or less dead now in Singapore, so my guess is that the yards will look into these kinds of installations also.”
According to the shipbroker Kennedy Marr, 30 liftboat vessels are already under construction worldwide, with 12 set to be delivered over the next six months. Silfver reports that, over the past two years, Wärtsilä frequently has been approached about supplying equipment for new liftboat vessels.
Some believe that liftboats might find a role in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms. According to a report from broker DBS Vickers Securities, a further 30 liftboats might be needed over the next five years to fulfil Chinese plans to increase installed offshore wind capacity more than tenfold to 30GW.
Wärtsilä is already positioning itself to supply this growing market. In March this year, the company won a contract to design a liftboat for Trinity Offshore, a Hong Kong joint venture set up by investors based in Shanghai and Singapore. The final design will be submitted this October, with steel cutting expected to start at a well-known Chinese shipyard in November.
David Xu, Singapore sales manager for Wärtsilä Ship Design, says that the Chinese shipyard commissioned to build the vessel expects that Wärtsilä’s compact design will cost significantly less to build than conventional liftboats and will also cost less to operate.
The design has the option of mounting a workover unit operated through a cantilever system, allowing the ship to carry out maintenance of offshore oil wells.
Wärtsilä supplied the electrical and propulsion system for the Trinity Offshore design, but the owner opted for a lightweight, high-speed engine supplied by another manufacturer.
“We sometimes struggle to get our engines in because they tend to use high-speed engines that Wärtsilä doesn’t typically produce,” Silfver explains. “If you have a lighter engine, the expectation is that you can lift more weight with the crane.”
However, and this is a crucial point, Silfver argues that using one of Wärtsilä’s medium-sized engines would not necessarily increase the weight of a liftboat vessel because these engines require less fuel. Liftboats using them could, as a result, be designed with smaller, lighter fuel tanks, allowing the lift capacity of the crane to rival standard liftboats.
“If the fuel tanks need to be of a dimension for a one-month operation, then the total weight moves in our favour,” Silfver claims. “But because liftboats have always been designed with high-speed engines, it’s quite difficult to change the mind-set.”
The appeal of diversifying into liftboats derives in part from their similarity to jackup rigs. For yards in Singapore, which previously relied on jackup rigs and other offshore oil industry vessels for as much as 85% of their income, it is easier to diversify into liftboats than into, say, cruise ships.
The world is now seeing a glut in both drilling rigs and Offshore Supply Vessels (OSVs), with the size of the global OSV fleet rising 83% between January 2008 and June 2015.
For now, liftboat build rates remain stable, and Xu is cautiously optimistic. “There are some different voices saying that liftboats could end up like the OSV market — oversupplied — but so far it hasn't happened,” he says.
So while the trend lasts, Wärtsilä will focus on the positive, which is that its liftboat has significant advantages over conventional designs. With better crane capacity, compliance with the latest industry rules, accommodation for a crew of 250, and an operational water depth of up to 75 metres, the odds may be in this liftboat’s favour. Wärtsilä expects to license the design to other customers long before the first vessel is delivered in the final months of next year.