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Subsea solutions for new offshore challenges

10th April 2013

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” technology development director at Subsea 7 John Mair tells Oil & Gas Technology, as he talks about what is to come in subsea systems, the transfer of equipment from the North Sea to other areas of the world and major R&D investments

Subsea solutions for new offshore challenges
Some of Subsea 7’s most relevant technologies today include pipeline and riser technology, insulation-thermo-performance technologies and mechanical lined pipe work

John Mair has spent 35 years in the subsea sector. A mechanical engineer and a fellow at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in the UK, Mair joined offshore subsea in the early days, starting off in remote technology and passing through the whole evolution of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) since they were first introduced in the oil and gas sector. Active in several territories around the globe throughout the years, Mair also got involved with subsea construction and other areas of the technology side of the company.


OGT: What new Subsea 7 technology and systems are exciting you the most?

John Mair: I think that an important point to remember is that technology development covers quite a number of years. We talk a lot about using technologies that are being unveiled today and obviously we always think of them as new. But for me, ‘new technologies’ is really about when they are starting to become implemented.


That being said, some of Subsea 7’s most important technologies today include pipeline and riser technology, insulation-thermo-performance technologies and mechanical lined pipe work which we’ve developed rather quickly over the last four years.


Our submerged buoys are particularly suited for those companies with very demanding subsea architectures. You have a riser that is effectively going to each production well and, as there isn’t much in it of manifolding, you can support a large number of risers. It’s a good concept for certain regions and it may even have applications in other parts of the world. There are derivatives of it that we are developing that aren’t quite so big and aren’t made for so many risers.


In terms of the mechanical lined pipe, we worked with Butting. We got it qualified by DNV and we implemented it in the Guará-Lula development in Brazil. And you do have to take your hat off to Petrobras, it was their first pre-salt project and they were using technology like that. I would say that they are keen to embrace new technology for sure, but they have a very strong technical competency. They don’t take on any new technology naively. They are as technically robust as any other major operator that you deal with.


As for our electrically heated pipe-in-pipe (PIP), that has yet to be deployed into a proper field use, other than a pilot. And that time is now coming. That’s a new technology which, I would suggest, you are going to see implemented around the world in a short time to come.


OGT: Do you believe that Subsea 7’s equipment in the North Sea and the equipment which it has developed to meet the area’s specific challenges is an assurance that it will be just as efficient in other important offshore regions?

JM: Definitely we do take remote technology experience from the North Sea, as well as vessel experience. We are looking to transfer our bundle technology around the world, as well as some pipeline technology engineering. But the easiest example for me would be ROV technology, which really provides for a parallel between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. That technology was developed in the late 1970’s.


Back then, BP made a commitment in the North Sea to replace divers operating on drill rigs with ROVs. And that milestone decision obviously created the market for the drill rig ROV. Necessity is the mother of invention and we try to develop technologies for companies not simply because they need them but because they will benefit from them.

But this technology transfer is a two-way street. Our mechanical lined pipe work, an industry first in the world and which, as I have mentioned, we implemented in Guará-Lula is now being taken to other areas of the world, and hopefully we can gain some opportunities in the North Sea.


OGT: Do you believe that accreditation is enough or is it necessary to go further to convince operators around the globe to use your services?

JM: In terms of accreditation, what we use is the DNV process, DNV RP-A203, which is a recommended practice for the qualification of new technology. After that process, what you may find that is that when you go through certain operators, they will acknowledge that you have gone through that process but they won’t automatically accept it and use it.


Some operators will want to do a thorough critique of what you’ve done, and they may ask you to look at their process and do something differently, so it’s not automatic. I’m not saying that it should be automatic. But you’ll find that in the aerospace industry, if a given system has gone through a process to determine whether or not it is fit to fly, then it is more readily accepted. Perhaps we need to go a bit more towards that in the oil and gas sector so that an accreditation like DNV would bear more weight with the operators.


OGT: What new systems, products and processes are you planning to introduce this year?

JM: For us, it’s pipelines, it’s risers, it’s installation. We are looking at new materials, new construction methods, new welding techniques, as well as higher strength steels as we go deeper and encounter higher pressures. We are also witnessing an emergence of composites and carbon fibre, so you’re going to see an uptake on that due to factors like fatigue, corrosion, high pressure. However, they’ve got to be installed completely differently, they’re light and that creates its own challenges; you have to think about how you’re going to inspect them – there’s quite a lot still to be done in that area.


OGT: New areas of exploration are opening up in the global oil and gas industry. Could you give us a generic view of some of the main areas of focus for your research and development division as you seek to overcome the challenges which new oil and gas plays will entail?

JM: You are going to see new developments in underwater communications, fibre optics and acoustics, especially for the Arctic. There is a facility there that is 30 km away, completely ice covered and ideally suited for autonomous vehicles to go and carry out inspection and intervention.


Fields have been designed for 20-25 years, and as time goes on you are going to see new technology and new sensor technology that has not been implemented since day one. This technology has got to be retrofitable, so you need to apply new sensors in the future. This is where your ROVs and your automated underwater vehicles (AUVs) can come in by perhaps fitting the new technology and communicating with it.


OGT: How will this shape Subsea 7’s technology development?

JM: What will shape what we do are the challenges of our clients. In short, we are going to be market driven. Where do the operators want to go? Is it the Arctic? Is it offshore LNG? Floating LNG? What kind of inspection, repair and installation technology is needed to meet those particular challenges?


OGT: How do you see Subsea 7 moving forward in the coming years in terms of the development of new solutions and equipment?

JM: We have spent USD 3bn over the last 3-4 years in infrastructure and technology, and we’re planning to spend USD 4bn over the next five years. So that’s an indicator that we are going to be focusing heavily on technology. We understand that the market is changing and that it is calling out for new and more cost-effective technologies and this is a major commitment to the company.

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