Ulstein International’s chief designer shares his tips for what to do and what not to do when repurposing offshore support vessels for new ventures
Opening a session on technological innovation at Riviera Maritime Media’s Annual Offshore Support Journal Conference & Exhibition – held virtually for the first time in 2021 – Ulstein International chief designer Øyvind Gjerde Kamsvåg summed up the state of the OSV market’s recent trajectory succinctly.
“The offshore market collapsed,” he said, and Ulstein was left with a large portfolio of state-of-the-art offshore support vessel (OSV) designs without a market to work in.
“The challenge we had at the time was nobody wanted our products. We were forced to sit down, rethink, regroup and ask a lot of questions.”
The questions Mr Kamsvåg and the Ulstein design team asked themselves were the sort of fundamental existential business questions most OSV operators will have grappled with over the past several years of bottoming oil prices and market downturns.
“How can we improve utilisation of tonnage? Can we expand the service portfolio? Are we able to maintain a competitive fleet? And can we reuse resources?”
The questions drove Ulstein to create a list of opportunities they saw – a list that had them looking to convert vessels to compete in other markets.
Three fundamental conversion base cases arose from their list of opportunities: seismic-research vessels converted to stern-trawler fishing vessels, pipe-lay vessels converted to heavy-lift installation vessels for use in the burgeoning offshore wind sector and subsea vessels converted to cable-lay vessels.
Ultimately, Ulstein formed the opinion that platform supply vessels (PSVs) are the best candidates for conversion.
“This is due to their size, capability and availability – since there were numerous being built at the time with a series available in layup – and it’s also a flexible platform and [can be done at] a moderate cost,” Mr Kamsvåg said.
“When assessing the new and emerging markets, we saw it is possible to convert a PSV into the energy market as a walk-to-work (W2W) vessel, cable-laying vessel, survey vessel. Moving into [conversions for] the ocean biomass market, we get crab-catching vessels, factory stern trawlers, service vessels. Moving possibly into [conversions for] the leisure market, you look at yachts, yacht-support vessels, exploration cruise or theatre vessels,” he said. “And other vessel options exist – waste-treatment plants, patrol vessels, etc.”
Fortunately for Ulstein, the company’s most popular vessel design, the PX121, of which 30 units have been built, also proved to be a good choice for vessel modifications and conversions. From that particular vessel, Ulstein isolated three base cases for modification and conversion that could be financially feasible: a W2W vessel or service operation vessel including a larger accommodation unit with lifeboats and a walk-to-work ramp, a more engineering-intensive conversion of a PSV to a yacht, yacht-support vessels and small cruise vessels and, as Mr Kamsvåg said, hospital or emergency-response vessels, which are particularly relevant during a global pandemic.
Mr Kamsvåg said for Ulstein and anyone considering a PSV conversion project, there are three main criteria that must be considered: cost, time and resources.
While the criteria are simple and straightforward, there can be hidden pitfalls, as Mr Kamsvåg cautioned.
“In most cases, conversions are less costly than newbuilds,” he said “but if a project is not managed properly it can be more expensive than a newbuilding.”
Secondly, Mr Kamsvåg said, “conversions are time saving as compared to newbuilds, and finally, there is the environmental aspect, as conversions save resources as compared to newbuilds”.
In terms of maximising the potential of a vessel conversion project, Mr Kamsvåg said Ulstein found three main strategies that, when used together, could increase the flexibility of a conversion project.
“One is modularisation, the use of temporal modules,” he said. “Another is standardisation, use of standard equipment and modules. The last one is containerisation which is integration of equipment in containers.”
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