Delivering through dynamism

Posted on 10 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

Soil Machine Dynamics has established itself as a world class manufacturer in the subsea engineering field. Continuous product development and a solid skills base are contributing towards a centre of excellence on the banks of the River Tyne

Founded in 1971, Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) is a leading manufacturer of remotely operated submersible vehicles and marine surface equipment. Based in Tyne and Wear, the company fronts the River Tyne and, along with its own quay, boasts excellent sea, rail and road links, making its products and facilities easily accessible for a global and growing customer base which spans a wide range of industries.

The company currently has a total of 300 subsea machines and 200 pieces of deck equipment employed globally. Specific products include remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), which are widely used by market leaders in the offshore oil and gas industry; other SMD products designed for this field include ploughs, tractors and towed jetters. Also a supplier to the telecoms industry, the company manufactures cable ploughs used by cable installers worldwide to protect underwater fibre optic cables, with over 100,000 kilometres having been buried this way to date. SMD work class ROVs are used by navies for rescue and salvage operations and, specifically within the scientific exploration industry, the company’s Q-series work class ROV systems are used for deep water survey and observation work.

The company also supplies machines for the mining of minerals and diamonds and for use during wreck salvage operations. Cable protection products are manufactured for offshore wind farms, and a free stream tidal generator – TIDEL – is also under development. The company itself puts a strong emphasis on its own environmental policies; an area consistently under review and development.

A major contributing factor to the company’s success thus far has been its engineers’ proficiency and depth of skill across multiple disciplines, enabling it to maintain high standards in areas of design, production and customer service. Around half of the company’s employees are qualified engineering graduates – a level of expertise supported by SMD’s modern design software and extensive office facilities. Having the ability to attract strong talent to its operations is clearly a priority, and as such, a comprehensive benefits system is in place which includes bonuses, health insurance and flexible working options, in addition to competitive salaries. The company also prides itself in having low levels of bureaucracy and an informal but industrious working environment, which it views as crucial to retention and to maintaining high levels of productivity and efficiency.

A considered approach to both its employees and its products has clearly paid dividends – SMD can count among its clients such prestigious names as Subsea 7, AT&T, QinetiQ, the Ministry of Defence and the US Navy. Client care is a major component of the company’s approach to maintaining its position in the market, and to facilitate this, it has built up a large team of highly skilled and highly trained technicians who make up the SMD Offshore Services (SOS) arm of its personnel. SOS is able to work across the breadth of SMD’s product range and, in addition, a team of contractors is readily available to meet any extra requirements that the company and its client base may have. Services offered by these teams include emergency call-outs, site installation and on-site maintenance, as well as a 24-hour hotline to service engineers and spares staff, which customers can rely on if they need to resolve technical questions or submit spares requests.

The company’s drive to continuous improvement is also enhanced by its on-site training facilities. It has developed a Dri-ROV simulator specifically designed to simulate its entire range of ROVs, alongside a space for audience viewing and full maintenance training resources. The facility is managed and run by a full-time ROV training manager, and underscores SMD’s commitment to providing a comprehensive service that extends beyond manufacturing.

Constantly looking to enhance its facilities, SMD opened new offices on its current site in April this year – the result of an investment totalling £1.75 million. Intended to assist the company in maintaining its reputation as a world class facility, the offices have been constructed at the same time as other improvements taking place along the banks of the River Tyne. Managing director of SMD John Reece said of the new development: “It has been a long-standing ambition of mine to house all of our 135 employees on a single site. We have a wonderful, well-equipped campus with room for further expansion. In total we have invested £2.75 million re-developing the Turbinia site. As well as the new main office we have improved the main assembly hall and added a new stores building, a new client and production office, a new canteen and support services office, a modern training facility with simulator and new wet test facility. This forms an important part of the general redevelopment of the banks of the Tyne to become a centre of excellence for subsea and marine technology.”

Looking further afield, SMD was awarded its third supply contract to China in May, to supply a work class ROV for China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Company (CSOC) – clearly demonstrating that it is well equipped to operate in emerging markets. Sales director Mike Jones said of the deal: “We are delighted with this contract award. This will be the third ROV system we have supplied to China and it maintains our leadership in this marketplace. We will be working closely with our Chinese representative, Bluewhale, to build key parts of the system in China.” Bluewhale Offshore Engineering Technology Company provides sales and equipment support for SMD deals in China, enabling it to deliver consistency in customer service throughout its global operations. CSOC is part of China’s largest shipbuilding company, and the contract represents a strong move forward into the market for SMD.

A little closer to home, the company was also awarded a contract in March this year by the Marine Institute of Ireland. The deal, worth £2 million, is to supply equipment primarily for scientific purposes, but which can also be used by the navy, coastguard and for commercial purposes. SMD sales manager Mark Collins said of the agreement: “We are very pleased to be awarded this contract. This multifunctional, flexible system will be a key tool in the Marine Institute’s armoury to achieve their goals of a thriving maritime economy in harmony with the ecosystem.”

The company was able to further cement its position in the global marketplace in February 2008, when it played host to the UK Trade and Investment international delegation, who were visiting the UK for the Subsea 2008 exhibition and conference in Aberdeen. Major industry leaders within the oil and gas sector from countries such as Brazil, the United States and India visited SMD and were thus afforded valuable insight into the company’s breadth of skills and expertise. Graeme Slaven, who was the UKTI host for the delegation, said of the visit: “This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the best of the UK oil and gas industry. We are very fortunate to visit SMD during their production of the world’s largest ROV. The sheer scale of the equipment has impressed all of our visitors.” The visit enabled SMD to showcase its skills and facilities to the world, as well as underlining the UK’s position as a major player in this arena.

SMD is also due to supply its latest multi-depth three metre plough to NTT WEM in Japan later this year, to be installed on their cable lay vessel. The deal is taking place 10 years after SMD supplied its original model to the same company – illustrating its long-term capabilities and strong customer service delivery through its ability to retain key customers over many years. The plough’s innovative design allows fibre optic cables to be laid to a depth of three metres, protecting them from activities such as deep sea fishing.

With a turnover currently in the region of £40 million, the company has clearly found a firm foothold in the subsea engineering market and looks set to expand in the coming years due to a rapid rise in demand for its products and expertise. One major project currently underway is the supply of two seafloor mining tools to Nautilus Minerals, a contract worth £30 million. Design will take place at the company’s Tyne and Wear site before mining operations commence in south east Asia in 2010.

Further substantial growth plans are in place for SMD until 2012 and beyond, which will doubtless see the company further solidify its position as a world class supplier to leading subsea companies across the globe.