North East firms successful in early phases of the ocean race

By Professor Nick Wright, pro vice-chancellor (research & innovation) Newcastle University and director of the Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering

Subsea luminaries such as SMD have prospered through high-value engineering
Subsea luminaries such as SMD have prospered through high-value engineering

At present, man’s activities are largely confined to the one third of the planet’s surface that is land or shallow coastal waters.

It is inconceivable that the remaining two-thirds of the planet will stay ignored as our population expands – not just as a simple source of resources, but also as an active component of a global sustainable economy.

It is this vision of the sea as being a defining opportunity for the 21st Century that has led Newcastle University to establish the Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering on the banks of the river Tyne.

Announced as part of the UK's national oil and gas strategy, the Neptune Centre will grow over the next decade to be a world-class engineering innovation hub that will bring together leading researchers, companies and the community to explore the opportunities of the sea.

We have seen in recent years the beginning of this renaissance as local companies such as BEL Valves (part of the British Engines Group) have grown rapidly through their success in the subsea sector.

BEL Valves and other subsea luminaries (such as Shepherd Offshore, SMD, GE Wellstream, IHC Engineering Business and Duco Technip) have prospered through high-value engineering that utilises advanced materials to provide state of the art products.

The demands of subsea engineering are so exacting that the very best of technology is essential – driving forward innovation and design.

This makes this sector the most exciting to be involved in as we witness what is effectively the modern-day equivalent of a space race – the ocean race is a global phenomenon that involves competition and collaboration across many countries.

The North East has been outstandingly successful in the early phases of the ocean race with, for example, local companies growing to employ nearly 15,000 people in the subsea sector.

But global competition is fierce and if the North East is going stay in the leading pack, activities such as the Neptune Centre will need to play a strong role.

So what are the opportunities for the future?

As we explore the oceans, we will need a myriad of technologies and skills to enable us to secure resources and effect operations.

For example, there are significant opportunities for specialised consultants who can assist with identification and planning of projects.

We will also need the ability to install large engineering installations that have been fabricated on-shore.

This will create opportunities for companies that can manufacture specialised marine structures and equipment or repair existing ones.

The deployment of these structures and their maintenance is a highly-skilled field in itself that creates huge opportunities for operations-based companies to provide crucial support to deployed infrastructure such as offshore wind farms amongst many others.

Within manufacturing, subsea and offshore components are needed in ever greater numbers and all are the very epitome of high-value manufacturing.

To speed up this innovation, the Neptune Centre will have highly specialised test and engineering facilities to enable companies to develop these products and services through collaboration.

But perhaps the most important factor in the ocean race will be finding and training the right people with relevant skills. Almost all ocean projects are bespoke and require the absolute latest technology – these can only be designed and delivered by the best people.

The Neptune Centre will play a crucial role in inspiring young engineers at the graduate level and will work closely with partners at other levels so that the North East can create a truly joined-up skills pathway that will provide young people with a route to what will be a fantastic career.

The future for the North East is bright, but we must compete hard to prosper in the ocean race.

The Neptune Centre will provide crucial capability to help the North East compete as our companies generate a projected further 15,000 jobs over the next decade.

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