Small But Mighty

Super-Heavy-Lift World Poised for Takeoff

By Amy McLellan

Most breakbulk cargo moves go under the radar, but nothing grabs headlines like the super-heavy-lift sector.
There are a number of record-breakers out there, most notably China’s Taisun, the world’s biggest gantry crane with a capacity of 20,000 tonnes and its very own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Then there is Heerema’s newbuild liquefied natural gas-powered crane vessel, Sleipnir, with its two 10,000-tonne revolving cranes, which can lift loads of up to 20,000 tonnes in tandem.

When it comes to land-based mobile cranes, a number of companies have been busy in recent years developing new concepts to push the lifting envelope, development that comes in time to meet anticipated increased demand for super-heavy-lifts, defined as those weighing in at more than 800 tonnes for a single cargo move.

This increased demand is largely down to increased confidence in the outlook for the oil and gas industry. This is an industry that felt the pinch as major projects were shelved following the oil price slump of 2014. But after a period of sustained price recovery, with benchmark Brent prices holding north of US$60 per barrel, oil companies have found their confidence and dusted off stalled plans to meet the world’s growing energy needs.
According to DNV GL’s 2019 oil and gas industry outlook, confidence has more than doubled over the last two years, with more than two-thirds (67 percent) of senior oil and gas professionals believing more large, capital-intensive oil and gas projects will be approved this year and seven out of 10 expecting to increase or maintain capital expenditure this year.

This is good news for the heavy hitters of the crane world, as their specialist kit is vital to maneuver oil and gas industry hardware, be it floating production and storage and offloading unit topsides or refinery plants. With Big Oil now greenlighting previously stalled mega-projects, contractors are lining up to tender for work – and that includes the specialists of the abnormal load world.

“Demand in this segment depends on the waves in the oil and gas sector,” said Paul van Gelder, CEO of Netherlands-based Mammoet, which takes the No. 1 spot in the IC Index of the world’s largest crane-owning companies. “We are seeing more oil and gas coming onstream and that’s helping demand in the super-lift category.”

Investment: Upstream, Downstream

Investment is up across the board, from upstream oil and gas to liquefied natural gas, or LNG, projects, petrochemicals and refineries. Deepwater production is also picking up. Wood Mackenzie thinks 2019 will be the best since 2013, with project sanctions potentially hitting US$80 billion in total capital expenditure, up from just US$20 billion last year as a focus on cost-cutting and design optimization has driven down the breakeven price to US$50 per barrel of oil equivalent, triggering a wave of development in deep waters off Brazil, Guyana and Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not just upstream where there’s a renewed wave of investment. Billions of dollars are being spent on refining and petrochemicals projects in North America, Africa, the Middle East and China to add value to every precious barrel and therm of gas to meet the world’s surging demand for chemicals and plastics.

All of this is good news for the world’s heavy-lifters, with their specialist services increasingly in demand.
Yannick Sel, director for global sales at ALE, said the Stafford, UK-based group is seeing increased demand in the number of requests for 800-tonne-plus single cargo moves for projects that will get underway in the next 24 months.

“Operations and project execution will start in one to two years, due to the amount of planning involved in significant projects of this type,” Sel said. “The heaviest lifts will come for FPSO/floating LNG construction. We also see quite a few heavy-lifts coming up for the petrochemical industry in the future.”

Innovation to Meet New Energy

With climate change increasingly topping the agenda, as countries around the world experience increased frequency of extreme weather events, there’s growing urgency to develop renewable and nuclear energy. This is placing increased demand on the heavy-lift sector to deliver innovative solutions for these essential projects.

Belgium’s Sarens, for example, is debuting its new crane, the largest in the world, at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK in more than 20 years. The SGC-250 arrived on site in August, due to the services of Collett, which discharged the components on their arrival at Port of Avonmouth and then delivered the massive structure in modular form in more than 400 deliveries in four months to the Hinkley Point construction site. With a lift capacity of 5,000 tonnes, the new Sarens crane will play a critical role in the construction of the power plant, positioning more than 600 heavy fabrications.

Similar innovation is required in wind power, particularly offshore, where turbines are getting ever heavier and are increasingly sited in countries with no experience of offshore operations, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The heavy-lift industry is constantly innovating and adapting to meet this new demand.

In Japan, for example, Shimizu is building the world’s largest offshore installation jack-up vessel, capable of handling a new generation of mega-turbines to serve Japan’s offshore wind ambitions. The vessel will be equipped with a crane with lifting capacity of 2,500 tonnes and lifting height of 158 meters, making it capable of handling next-generation ultra-large-scale turbines.

Achieving these big lifts doesn’t always mean bigger cranes; sometimes it means forging new partnerships to deliver innovation. Mammoet, for example, has joined forces with Dutch maritime contracting company Van Oord and Australian technology company Verton to develop a new lifting method for installing wind turbine blades. Verton has developed a remote rotating device that uses gyroscopic modules to rotate a suspended load.

“The system allows operators to rotate and install heavy loads without using tag lines,” Wouter de Wildt of Van Oord explained. “Not only is this safer for operators, but it also shortens the installation cycle times.”

Infrastructure Upgrades

It’s not just the energy sector that’s generating super-heavy-lift demand. In the U.S., the US$287 billion America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act, or ATIA, aims to boost investment in the nation’s long-neglected roads, tunnels and bridges. But the infrastructure overhaul is not just focused on transport; the country’s power and utility sectors are also being overhauled to replace aging assets and meet the needs of a growing population.

All of this means work for super-heavy-lift providers and, as Danny Cain, safety and risk manager at Kentucky-based Edwards Moving & Rigging, points out, these lifts are getting heavier all the time.

“We’re being asked to move bigger and heavier equipment every year,” Cain said, pointing out that utility companies like to future-proof their upgrades by installing excess capacity to accommodate anticipated growth in demand. “As the cargo gets bigger and bigger, the challenges for us get tougher and tougher, and you need to do a lot of due diligence and planning to undertake these multimodal transfers of equipment particularly as so much of our infrastructure isn’t equipped for these heavy moves.”

This is a highly specialized niche; only a handful of global operators are able to undertake the biggest lifts and have the financial resources to invest in developing next-generation cranes. With new concepts taking years to move from drawing board to construction site, and each heavy-lift project taking at least a year of planning and permitting, new capacity doesn’t become available quickly, which could act as a drag on project timelines.

“With the increase in demand as well as weight and dimensions over several sectors, we can foresee a shortage in the next few years,” ALE’s Sel said, noting offshore renewables, floating LNG, floating production storage and offloading, or FPSO, and to an extent nuclear, although that would be a few years down the line. “Buyers have to be aware of this as it might jeopardize their projects.”

It’s not just hardware that could be in short supply. As Sel points out, this isn’t just about being able to mobilize the right equipment. “Having equipment is one thing, but even more important is having the people that come up with the solution and do the engineering,” he said. “Many of our projects require us to be the single point of contact for clients across international borders, sectors, languages and so on.”

Indeed, bigger and thus fewer lifts are seen as essential to manage the enduring problem of skills shortages because it enables modular construction.

“Modular construction is the only solution for some of these mega projects,” Mammoet’s van Gelder noted.
“Oil and gas are never found in a nice place like Amsterdam, it always tends to be a hostile or remote location, which creates a challenge not only in terms of equipment but also in getting people to work there. Expert craftsmen are becoming scarce and the younger generation is less attracted to the industry.”  

Freelance journalist Amy McLellan has been reporting on the highs and lows of the upstream oil and gas and maritime industries for 20 years.

Image credit: CC-BY-SA3.0.