The Underwater Centre has extended its repertoire of services with an award-winning Oxy-Arc Cutting Course
Whilst technology is an immensely important part of the oil and gas industry, and a key source of growth and efficiency, equipment is only ever as good as the people using it. A well-trained and capable workforce is the beating heart of any company and the key to a project’s success.
This goes doubly so for the subsea sector, which faces a number of challenges and hazards that make a well-trained staff indispensable. And with the subsea sector set to expand from US$30 billion to US$60-70 billion in five years, the demand for oil workers skilled in working underwater is certain to rise.
The Underwater Centre offers a number of training courses to help people hone their subsea skills from their base in Fort William in Scotland, on the banks of Lock Linnhe. InnovOil spoke with Steve Ham, the commercial director of The Underwater Centre, to find out what his company has to offer.
“We train commercial divers for air diving and closed bell, or saturation, diving. We take people into the subsea industry that want to become commercial divers and we deliver that initial training course,” Ham said.
“They go away and work for a few years, and then the ones that want to progress on to saturation diving come back and do our closed bell diving course.”
Closed bell diving utilises a diving bell, a sealed chamber that is lowered underwater from which divers can operate. It allows a diving crew to operate at greater depths than might otherwise be possible.
“We’re one of only two independent schools that offer that particular course, so we get people from all over the world doing that,” Ham added.
The Underwater Centre also provides remotely operated vehicle (ROV) training as well as additional modules covering fibre optics, high voltage and hydraulics, among others.
“Another very important part of our business is that we support and facilitate testing of subsea equipment,” Ham added. “There’s a wide range of subsea equipment [that] comes up here to Loch Linnhe and we support the test and trials of equipment.
“We provide those real marine conditions that are still well protected, that are very safe, but real sea water conditions, to undertake tests down to 150 metres.”
In February, The Underwater Centre won an Innovation for Safety Award in the Subsea UK Awards 2018 for its Oxy-Arc Underwater Cutting collaboration project, developed with ConocoPhillips and Bibby Offshore.
“There are lots of different cutting techniques available, but one of the techniques that is available and has become more relevant is oxy-arc cutting, or burning, as it’s commonly known,” Ham said. “That’s historically been a tool that was used extensively in the diving industry many years ago. However, in recent years it has become less popular as safety standards have improved and working practices have changed. However, recent developments have led to it becoming a relevant technique again, as long as safety standards and the competency of users can be assured.”
Oxy-arc cutting slices metal utilising oxygen and a powerful heat source to oxidise the target. Once the heat from the electric arc brings the metal to its kindling temperature, a jet of oxygen oxidises the metal, both weakening it and providing the force to sever it.
The project may be one of the methods used in the dismantling of subsea structures, a major upcoming industry as the North Sea matures and decommissioning old oil rigs becomes a necessity.
“One of the Oil and Gas Authority’s [OGA] priorities for 2018 is to improve decommissioning efficiency,” Ham said. “It also recognised that there needs to be a reassessment of what tools [are] already available and should they be used more commonly, and oxy-arc cutting would fall into that category.
“ConocoPhillips had a particular project [where] they felt that this would be a relevant technique, so they funded the development of an oxy-arc underwater cutting course and we worked with the underwater contractor Bibby Offshore in the development of the training,” he added.
“The biggest innovation was the fact that we worked really collaboratively with ConocoPhillips and with Bibby and we addressed a problem that had been identified on paper but had not been addressed. The three organisations worked really hard and really well together to come up with something that was practical and deliverable but significantly improved safety.”
Recently, a group of industry and public bodies including Oil & Gas UK, Subsea 7, TechnipFMC, Premier Oil and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) took ownership of The Underwater Centre. The company will now operate as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which will be funded and supported by its members, comprising operators, service companies and the industry.
“It was born [out] off a recognition that the industry wanted to support the continuation of high quality training, especially closed bell diver training,” Ham explained. “The economics of doing that over the last few years, especially the last three years, have become very difficult. So the industry wanted to support that to make sure that we continued to have high quality training delivering high quality divers into the industry.
“But it was very difficult for them to support us if we were a private for-profit company, so we decided to make the change to our structure. It was not only a way of making it possible to receive the support from a number of stakeholders, but also to try and bring a more collaborative way of working within the industry.”
The new ownership structure brought with it a chance for The Underwater Centre to improve its facilities and the courses it offers.
“That has enabled us to rebuild our saturation diving system,” Ham said. “It’s allowed us to add some very important features to that diving system to make it much more closely aligned with best practice today.
“I would say that the closed bell course is new because it is now delivered with the addition of an SPHL, a self-propelled hyperbaric life boat, on our system, so it is an enhanced course.
“We are going to be installing a subsea pipeline and other production well site infrastructure later on this year and that’s to support equipment trials of subsea technology. And we will continue the discussions with our stakeholders to really identify the areas in which we need to develop, in terms of subsea infrastructure and support, and the breadth of training we deliver.”
The new ownership structure means that The Underwater Centre will be working with other companies more closely in the future. This will help them identify the challenges facing oil and gas companies around the world, and better tailor and create courses to meet these needs.
“We’re only starting to get into those discussions, and as the whole industry comes out of this downturn, it’s that old classic situation where in the downturn, budgets are cut and it becomes very difficult to do the level of training that you would like to do,” Ham said.
“We foresee a major need for training in the future as the industry returns to growth. With this new structure, we are well placed to develop and deliver the training that will provide the greatest value to the industry in the years ahead. And if we have to increase the breadth of training we’re absolutely open to that.
“We’ve started having some of those conversations already, so I would say we would probably increase the breath of training we offer, but it will very much be driven by industry need.”
There are a number of areas that The Underwater Centre has identified as potential areas for growth.
“In terms of growth markets, we already deliver training to customers from many parts of the world. We see a growing need in many of these overseas markets for the level of training we can deliver, and we see opportunities to significantly grow these markets,” Ham said.
The Underwater Centre has started offering HSE diving courses in a number of non-English languages, increasing its attractiveness to overseas companies. “We’ve done that for South Korean, Mexican and Ukrainian companies recently and we’re in discussions with several other companies overseas as well,” Ham said.
“We also see a growing need for highly realistic subsea testing facilities for a number of sectors of the subsea industry, both from UK and overseas companies. We are currently working very closely with a Japanese company, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, in the second phase of their testing programme at The Underwater Centre and we are hoping to provide more services to the subsea technology development market as well.”
With subsea oil production predicted to reach par with traditional offshore production, personnel such as divers and ROV operators and new subsea technology development will be in great demand for many years to come. The Underwater Centre is entering a new phase of being able to cater to that demand.