Q&A – Mike Wilson

Materials World magazine
13 Oct 2014


Melanie Rutherford speaks to Mike Wilson of Ecosse Subsea Ltd, UK, about the challenges facing technology innovation in the subsea industry.

Tell me about your education and career to date
I attended Robert Gordon’s Institute of Technology in Aberdeen, where I did a Higher National Diploma in Mechanical Engineering. After qualifying, I joined a company called Underwater Diving and Inspection, where I worked as an offshore technician and offshore manager. I then moved down to England to be Senior Offshore Manager for Northern Ocean Services, which was subsequently bought by McDermott International. While I was there, I changed from being a staff member to a contractor for the company, and that experience was the foundation of Ecosse Subsea Systems, which I began in 1996. I had other interests up until 2005, at which point it became my primary interest as a business and was subsequently developed. Ecosse provides equipment rental, technology development and personnel to the offshore and subsea sector.

What technologies have you delivered at Ecosse?

My main experience is in the subsea construction market, primarily the installation and protection of cables, umbilicals and pipelines, and so all the techniques I’ve learnt are associated with that market. That involves offshore lifting of heavy machinery and learning about the reliability of offshore and underwater machinery. The technologies that we’ve developed at Ecosse came about through a desire to solve some industry-wide problems. My own personal experience has been working on a project and, when reviewing how we performed, thinking, ‘well, there has to be a better way of doing that’. You start considering it from the perspective of, ‘Why are we not doing it the easy way?’, and it turns out that perhaps technologies in another area have moved on, and what wasn’t possible 25 years ago is achievable today because other complementary activities have come along and changed things – and that’s certainly the case with SCAR plough. What has made it possible to operate effectively is the progression and advancement of ships’ dynamic positioning systems and, probably most importantly, offshore surveying and positioning techniques.   


What was the impetus behind the development of SCAR plough?

There were two main drivers behind the development of SCAR. I’d done some consultancy work with other companies and discovered that the economic driver for cable protection or product protection technology was actually less about the tools you need to do the job, and more about the ship that supports the project. With the ship costs being the dominant factor, if you have a trenching tool that is really slow, it substantially increases the time and costs involved. Conversely, with equipment that can be launched, operated and recovered more quickly, the charter time and operational costs of the vessel are vastly reduced. One of the key features of our SCAR technology is its ability to be launched like an anchor off the back of an anchor-handling vessel, which are in plentiful supply around the key global oil and gas hubs, and the ability to use spot market vessels in a cost-effective and productive manner. Typically, what we’re seeing - and this is a combination of productivity and actual cost - are cost reductions of 50% versus other techniques and tools. We’ve done a head-to-head comparison with a different type of tool in soils that are difficult to work in, and the SCAR was 10 times faster and able to work in twice the water depth of the other options.


What other technologies are you working on?

With our Olympic Spoolbase, there’s an opportunity to revolutionise the pipeline market and that, combined with our ambient lifting technology (patent pending), means we can install rigid pipe without the requirement for an offshore lay barge.


Why do you think there has not been more innovation in the UK subsea industry?

I think the operators and the end-users of these technologies have shut themselves off from the supply chain. Everyone knows that a new innovation or emerging technology could save them millions, but they find this really difficult to manage and to distinguish between the technologies. So they’ve set up a system of federal contracts in which large contractors perform the offshore work for them, and of course large contractors have a vested interest in not allowing into the market any technology that they don’t control. As a result, the oil companies never get to hear of half of the good ideas, because they’re protected by the existing supply chain. 


How can oil and gas companies tap into these new technologies?

I think that there are examples out there. Some of the Norwegian operators run a much more open forum for small companies, and they fish out the good ideas that might be useful to them and pull them through the supply chain. You have to spend money to save money, but it would appear to me that UK operators are not really interested in the innovations that may be out there in the small tier company supply chain. The big contractors should be banned from the Joint Industry Projects, which are designed to keep the new boys out.


What are the implications for industry?

I think it’s moribund, because they’re stuck with old technologies and will only introduce new technology when there is no other option, for example when it is a deeper water project or there’s a particular problem in a specific field or location.The chorus from engineers who should know better is, ‘Go and demonstrate it on someone else’s project and then we’ll use it. It seems like a great idea, but we will only entertain it if it’s been proved elsewhere’. Of course, that’s a Catch 22 situation. 








SCAR Plough: What is it?

A modified multi-pass plough designed to cut trenches of more than 5m deep in boulder, clays and difficult terrain. It has the capacity to work in deep water, near shore and onshore, and can be deployed dry for shore approaches. Although the SCAR plough was developed for traditional oil and gas project work, it has also been commissioned for seabed clearance work on a range of offshore wind farm developments.

For further information, email Stephen Rafferty, stephen@surepr.co.uk