Does the UK’s subsea industry actually belong to the UK?

Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester
Opinion by Dick Winchester

I don’t like spin. Never have and never will. Consequently I get really annoyed when people talk about the success of the UK subsea industry. Brits seem to have a thing about claiming ownership of something simply because it’s based here. It’s a bit like Ford motor cars. We – not me obviously – think of it as British because it’s been here since the 1930s or maybe earlier. It isn’t. It’s American. Always has been, always will be.

When I first came into the subsea industry in 1974 I worked for an Anglo French company operating manned submersibles. I joined them because a) I spoke French and b) they had some great ideas. The only UK company operating subs struck me as being more like an offshoot of the civil service. Not my cup of tea. Anyway, the French food was better and they wanted to send me to Florida for familiarisation training. What’s not to like!

Was I concerned about working with the French? Not at all. In fact to this day I am good friends and in regular contact with a lot of my old French colleagues. Some even send me “humorous” e-mails about moving back over there when Brexit kicks in. It’s an interesting idea.

As the industry evolved and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were developed, who was doing what began to change. Our first ROV was built by a Canadian company but the very big player proved to be American, namely the defence contractor Amatek Straza who built the highly successful and ubiquitous Scorpio ROV.

The UK though had one major advantage, or so we thought. By the late 1970s British Aerospace (BAe) had developed an all-electric work class ROV called Consub.

Here they were, a major aerospace company building high tech and high value aircraft and other kit for the civil and defence markets applying their knowhow and technology into a sector that was just beginning to find its feet. That vehicle was a huge success and set the standards against which everyone else tried to measure their vehicles’ own performance.

What’s more it was bought and operated by Subsea Surveys Ltd, a UK company based in Cumbria.

Problem was that for reasons absolutely nobody I’ve ever spoken to about actually understands, BAe decided not to make any more Consubs and disbanded the development team. Some say it was because their board refused to sanction the idea of doing anything other than defence work underwater, some say they thought oil and gas wouldn’t last long enough to warrant further investment. Personally I think it was classic British shareholder interest concerns and the management hadn’t got the testicular volumetric capacity to argue their case. Who knows, but the opportunity was lost.

It left us though with basically two main ROV builders. OSEL and Slingsby. The latter had built manned subs in the 70s, were technically highly competent and built advanced manipulator systems and tools. Slingsby were also expert at building composite material pressure hulls. They built a number of ROVS (the Trojan series) as well as a beast called Solo which came under my wing at Seaway Technology in the early 1980s. OSEL built Mantis which was a manned or unmanned vehicle and Rigworker, tough work class ROV that found favour with a number of contractors but mainly the now defunct Wharton Williams.

Then in the middle 1980s along came SeaEye run by one of my pals from manned sub days Ian Blamire. He set out to build observation class all-electric ROVs using brushless DC motors but nowadays they build a range of vehicles including some work class systems. They’re now owned by the Swedish company Saab rather than Ian.
And here’s the problem. All the companies I’ve mentioned so far either don’t exist anymore or have been bought by overseas buyers. Of those still in business in the UK Slingsby is part of the US Forum Energy Technologies Group and as I said, SeaEye is now Swedish. I should also mention that SMD (soil machine dynamics), the world-class deep water trencher builder, is now owned by the Chinese.

There are other smaller players of course. Companies building their own inspection vehicles and one or two building work class systems and trenchers but with all due respect to them they’re not major market players.

The same applies to tooling particularly manipulators. There are a couple of UK manufacturers but again, the big players are from overseas. Companies such as Schilling now owned by Technip FMC are the world leaders.

Actually, mentioning Technip FMC leads me neatly to the world of subsea tree and controls and other subsea production hardware. Least said actually because the only real good UK prospect in this field was Ferranti SubSea Systems in Bristol which became part of the Aker Kvaerner group in the 1990s.

Same applies to important subsea related technologies such as dynamic positioning. The now defunct UK GEC group built the GEM DP system in the late 1970s. I spent many sleepless nights trying to make one work on the world’s first DP ROV support vessel. The Norwegian company Simrad (now Kongsberg) moved in on the market after GEC was killed off and now dominates it.

See where I’m going here? If we keep talking up what we don’t actually own and claiming it as our own there is less incentive to build our own indigenous capacity.

Then of course there’s the question as to whether there’s a market out there now which is capable of absorbing more capacity indigenous or not. So now we turn once again to the idea of diversification into renewables and we already know that the biggest players who’ve done that aren’t indigenous to the UK or Scotland either. Big players here such as Subsea 7 are Norwegian and even companies like JDR Cables, for long thought very British and a major supplier to windfarm and other developments, are now owned by the Polish group Tele-Fonika Kable. We’re very careless when it comes to holding on to and developing the expertise we need for the future.

Brexit will, I fear, lead to some companies moving into Europe but there’s no excuse really for not developing what we have. That said, how do we do the things we’re talking about now such as grow an offshore robotics and automation capability if we don’t have the core capabilities in that area? Because I don’t think we have.