North East expertise is being used to tackle some of the world's biggest offshore challenges

The North East is a global hub for the design and manufacture of subsea machinery and this engineering heritage is now being deployed to tackle today’s new offshore challenges, as Peter McCusker reports

Mike Smith Photography Ltd Pictured: SMD
Pictured: SMD
The world’s first deep sea mining vehicle is currently being completed in Wallsend. Over the river in South Shields a revolutionary new offshore wind cable laying machine has been successfully trialled.


In Northumberland, skilled engineers have come up with new techniques and equipment for maintaining and servicing offshore wind turbines - and the North East will soon have a new innovation centre to further boost its world-leading subsea capabilities.

The region’s subsea industry spawned the North Sea oil and gas industry, is currently worth £1.5bn, and accounts for the design and build of over half of the world’s subsea robots.

Continued innovations in oil and gas, telecommunications, mining and renewables industries are expected to see this quadruple to over £6bn by the end of the decade.

George Rafferty, chief executive of Durham-based NOF Energy, which represents hundreds of regional companies in the energy offshore supply chain, said: “The North East continues to be at the heart of innovation in the subsea sector.

“The current generation of talented designers and engineers operating out of the region have really picked up the baton from those original pioneers who laid the foundations for the North East to become a global hub for subsea technology.

“Industry is continually turning to this region to develop new and increasingly sophisticated solutions to address their offshore requirements. Consistently, North East companies more than meet and exceed the challenges they are set.

“This has been achieved by continual investment in skills and technology. The leading players in the region’s subsea sector, working with Subsea North East, are committed to developing skills and career opportunities that will attract the very best graduates to the region and keep them here to ensure that the North East maintains its position in the global market.”

Ian McClelland Photography Ltd George Rafferty, chief executive of NOF Energy
George Rafferty, chief executive of NOF Energy

Much of the North East’s strength in the subsea industry evolved from the work undertaken by three global pioneers in Newcastle University’s agricultural department in the 1980s.

The work of this small team of innovators – Tony Trapp, Tim Grinstead and the late Alan Reece - led to the creation of some of the first underwater machines for burying cables and oil and gas pipelines.

The trio formed successful Wallsend company Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) in the early 1970s.

Trapp and Grinstead left SMD in 1996 set up a new venture The Engineering Business in Northumberland, which developed a new subsea plough.

The Engineering Business was bought by Dutch company IHC Merwede for £26m in 2008 and two years later Trapp established OSBIT Power.

OISBIT is based in Riding Mill and continues to develop unique solutions for emerging offshore renewables and oil and gas industries.

The region is particularly strong is the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) sector which allows underwater construction and maintenance to be carried from a control room, on a support vessel.

Andrew Hodgson, chief executive officer at SMD, said: “Subsea Robots are becoming a critical part of the underwater industry because of safety, efficiency or new challenges. Subsea North East has three members in SMD, Forum and IHC who between them account for significantly more than half the world market for vehicle manufacture based upon a long term history of development in this area.

“In addition we have a number of vehicle operators with global scale in the region making the North East the world centre for subsea vehicle innovation.”

Subsea North East comprises of senior executives from some of the region’s major companies including; IHC Engineering Business, SMD, BEL Valves, Duco and Wellstream, and aims to promote and act as a single voice for the industry in the North East.

Last year it joined forces with Newcastle University and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to announce plans to develop the Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering centre.

Based on the north banks of the Tyne at Wallsend, the centre aims to be a world-leader in subsea engineering. It will open next year and will feature a diving chamber to test large pieces of engineering kit and environmental chambers to test products to high pressures and temperatures.

Mr Trapp, managing director of OSBIT Power and a founder member of Subsea North East, said: “We should all be proud of the North East’s achievements in a very competitive market and look ahead with confidence to more work coming here and securing and creating even more jobs.

“The North East is recognised worldwide as a hub of innovative engineering expertise. It has a wealth of experience that is setting a benchmark for the rest of the world.

“These teams of highly-skilled engineers across the region are designing and building some of the most cutting-edge pieces of equipment in use in the offshore sector.

“The creativity we have shown over the years and the speed with which the region’s leading companies can respond has kept us at the top of the list for the world’s biggest engineering projects.”

Andrew Hodgson chief executive of SMD
Andrew Hodgson chief executive of SMD


The world’s first deep sea mining machine has just been completed by Soil Machine Dynamics.

At 310 tonne it is the weight of 25 double decker buses and is to be delivered as part of a £60m contract to extract copper, diamonds and gold from an undersea volcano.

The Bulk Cutter is one of the three machines SMD will build to fulfil the contract with the other two the Auxiliary Cutter and Collection Machine due for delivery next year.

SMD was awarded the contract in 2007 by Canadian company Nautilus for their Solwara One site off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The machines will operate at depths of 1,600m.

The Auxiliary Cutter is designed as the pioneering machine which prepares the rugged sea bed for the more powerful Bulk Cutter.

These two machines gather the excavated material; the third vehicle, the Collecting Machine will collect the cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and push it thought a flexible pipe to the subsea pump and on to the production ship via a riser system.

The chassis, which was fabricated by Davy Markham in Sheffield, was delivered complete with double ended drive tracks which were manufactured by Caterpillar in Italy.

As well as the three vehicles, SMD is providing the large launch and recovery and winch systems to allow deployment from the production ship.

Stef Kapusniak, business development manager for mining at SMD, said: The bulk cutter is the heaviest machine we have yet made. The North East of England is the best area in the world for the design and manufacture of mid and deep water excavation equipment.”

IHC Engineering Business


Earlier this year Northumberland based IHC Engineering Business (IHC EB), launched Hi-Traq, the world’s first four tracked subsea trencher.

The Hi-Traq is able to adapt to the challenges of burying cables in both hard and soft seabeds and follow the success of IHC EB’s i-Trencher, developed to bury offshore oil and gas pipelines.

A spokesman of IHC EB said: “Seabeds are made up of varying soil conditions presenting multiple challenges; soft seabed conditions can pose a threat for vehicles becoming stuck.

“The Hi-Traq design utilises a bogey type bottom roller arrangement, more often associated with tank design, which when combined with the four track system provides for constant ground contact allowing excellent floatation over soft materials.”

IHC says that the harsh environments found in wind farm locations mean the existing fleet of vehicles can be limited by high wind and wave action, strong subsea currents and varying seabed conditions.

A spokesman continued: “This means that a vehicle with high traction capabilities is required to tackle the harsh environment. The name Hi-Traq was derived from the performance requirement, High Traction.

“The independent four track suspension system of Hi-Traq provides the solution to traversing such terrain whilst ensuring a flat bottomed and stable trench, important to give adequate protection to the cables.”

A state of the art control suite has been developed by in-house engineers to provide the user with full control of the vehicle which can operate on the seabed up to 500 meters water depth.

The platform is not solely suited to trenching but also has the capacity to handle a range of tooling to facilitate a wide range of subsea activities. This includes dredging and cutting equipment as well as subsea hammers and product handling systems.

As such, the vehicle has the capacity to perform operations throughout a project lifecycle; from seabed preparation, through product burial to ongoing operations and maintenance.

OSBIT Power managing director Tony Trapp
OSBIT Power managing director Tony Trapp


OSBIT Power was established four years ago by subsea pioneer Tony Trapp and is based in Riding Mill in Northumberland.

Its first creation was the MaXccess system which creates a stable platform from which personnel can transfer to and from wind turbines. Its customers include Siemens, Statoil and Dong.

The system clamps on to either of the vertical buffer tubes of a standard boat landing, allowing the vessel to roll, pitch and yaw freely, while preventing vertical bow motion.

The company recently announced it has lined up more than £10m of new projects which are mainly for design and build of complex offshore systems for nine different customers, including many of the largest offshore contractors in the world.

In February it completed its biggest project to date with the delivery of a 150 tonnes shock absorber for Technip, which forms part of the deployment system for Technip’s multi-pass and backfill plough spreads.

The system is a replacement for Technip’s existing unit which is nearing the end of its service life, and incorporates several improvements such as design for easier maintenance and an increased safe working load.

In partnership with fellow Tyneside manufacturer, Tyne Gangway, OSBIT is delivering its largest telescopic gangway system to date. The 35m long MaXccess-P35 system is being supplied to leading Subsea 7, in support of installation operations on Chevron’s Lianzi project offshore West Africa.

The system features 13m of telescopic stroke to ensure a wide operational window, and a rapid mobilisation tower to allow the system to be readily installed on the vessels existing deck structure.

Osbit is also working on a heavy weather ROV launch and recovery system for a semi-submersible, for a well intervention contractor.


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