EQUIPPED WIT HALL THE PIECES TO COMPLETE YOUR SUBSEA PUZZLE

Step inside Sonardyne’s global headquarters, 40 miles south-west of London, and any preconceived ideas you may have about the company and what it does will be quickly dispelled. You will of course see plenty of products such as acoustic transponders, inertial navigation systems, DVLs and transceivers on the production line, but sitting alongside them will be custom designed equipment destined for one-off subsea projects. Reporting for Baseline, Divisional Director for Oil and Gas, Dr Graham Brown, examines how Sonardyne has assembled all of the pieces needed to meet the challenges of its clients’ engineering puzzles.   

“I didn’t know you did all that” and “I didn’t appreciate the detail involved.” These are regular comments that I hear from customers who see our design and manufacturing processes for the first time whilst walking around our factory.

While Sonardyne is well known within the offshore oil and gas industry as a designer and manufacturer of Long BaseLine (LBL) positioning transponders, something we are less known for is that throughout our history, we have engaged in special  projects developing custom engineering solutions

Custom Engineering

Acoustic is indeed a very large part of what we do – it’s in our DNA. But long ago, we realised that not all subsea challenges can be solved using standard, off-the-shelf products and hence the core of many of our known products are based around a few high reliability technology platforms. This reliability has increasingly led to our clients coming to us and asking if we can apply our learning and technologies to help solve their problems.

So for the last decade we have continually invested in developing and transforming our capabilities and methods of working in system engineering, product design and custom solution delivery. Sonardyne is now an agile organisation and all parts of the company have been touched by this process, from how we capture users’ requirements to  through-life project management, materials control and custom manufacture. The result? A team of experienced people who have tried and tested technologies at their fingertips, with a proven portfolio of hardware and software pieces that can be fitted together seamlessly to build custom engineered systems that meet your needs.

Vertically integrated

 Our ability to react quickly to integrate new technologies and deliver custom engineered subsea solutions is enabled by Sonardyne’s vertical integration. So how does vertical integration give us that ability? In simple terms it is about having skilled people, with the right tools and processes which is fully integrated with manufacturing, compliance, test and offshore operations. By investing in people, specialised design software, prototyping and test equipment, adding substantial in-house manufacturing capabilities and adding a vetted and developed supply chain (with whom we have long term relationships), makes us a more agile and cost-effective organisation. This is something that can be further improved upon with sophisticated manufacturing control, keeping safety stocks of key raw materials, sensors and integrated circuits together with stocks of piece parts. Not only does this allow us to quickly assemble variants of our standard products, it also enables us to design, develop and manufacture customised systems or products, efficiently and within budget.

 Of course as no two subsea engineering challenges are ever quite the same, the pieces in the Sonardyne puzzle can blend together old  and new ideas, designs and components, which can be rapidly reconfigured almost without limitation. To make this clearer, let’s look at a practical example. An oil company comes to us needing a set of subsea instruments for long term integrity monitoring. How do we approach the task?

 At the very heart of this process is robust systems engineering. Firstly, we capture requirements by addressing obvious questions, the who, the what, the where and the when’s of the project. This includes how deep it will be used, where will it be deployed and for how long? Then we address the more complex requirements such as what sensing is actually required, how does the data need to be processed and what compromises need to be considered between reliability and availability, durability and cost? Thereafter, we can work with the project team to draft, review and agree a specification. Answering these (and many more) questions will highlight the less obvious ones. Those being the questions that only experience teaches you to ask.

 Once we have formed this clear picture of what needs to be done, technology trade-offs can be performed, what is the best sensor for the application or what is the best material? At this point, the solution will be starting to form and take a much firmer shape based on a clearer understanding of the requirements, constraints, key components, defined interfaces and Concept of Operations.

Candidate designs can be evaluated, down selected and detailed design commenced. Detailed design encompasses the hundreds of tiny, but critical decisions – each carrying knock-on considerations. For example, choosing the heat treatment for the pressure housing to minimise corrosion risk, selecting a capacitor that will survive the shock load, routing the PCB tracking to reduce electromagnetic susceptibility or implementing an algorithm to process the data faster and save battery life. Our experienced team of engineers reduce clients’ product risk with each of these decisions.

 Following client design review, we can rapidly implement and manufacture the custom solution in-house and start the testing process. This entails working from bare PCB or software modules through many levels of assemblies, to full product level and finally production system level acceptance in test tanks at our Blackbushe campus.

As well as in-air and in-water functional testing, we have extensive and specialist sensor calibration equipment and product compliance testing facilities in-house. This includes high pressure testing of large assemblies up to 760mm diameter by 2 metres long and a test pressure of 630bar, to smaller chambers capable of pressures of 1200bar for simulating conditions at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. In addition, we also have access to shock and vibration testing of PCBs and chassis assemblies that meet API standards, as well as large thermal test chambers. All of these world-class facilities are now available to support custom solution development and are available for hire. So, apart from some specialised aspects of compliance testing or tests that need independent verification, nothing needs to be outsourced.

Following comprehensive factory and tank testing, in-water full system integration testing is often then first undertaken at our trials facility in Plymouth. Our website has more information on what we can do to support in-water equipment validation. After this test, there is often further testing for special projects at the client’s specified location where we may integrate with other equipment vendors to test a larger system. Finally, when it comes to taking the technology offshore for the first time, our engineers are all suitably qualified and experienced to support installation, deployment and commissioning activities. This is backed up by our regional offices that provide mobilisation, training and through life support.

The story is similar for all of the standard products we supply ranging from the simpler acoustics beacons used in seismic surveys, through to complex positioning and well control systems supplied to drilling rigs. However, we can apply the benefits of our vertical integration and flexibility to working with you to develop custom solutions to your problems. This can range from manufacturing lightly customised versions of our existing products through to highly customised

Engineered solutions, based on your requirements and our technologies, manufactured to order and perhaps even embedded inside your product. Vertical integration allows us to be efficient, be in control of quality and costs throughout the engineering design cycle. This provides benefits that we can pass on in terms of price and risk.

A deeper understanding Underpinning all this is, of course, our people. From a technical perspective, we have specialists across a range of subsea engineering disciplines, including 14 PhDs, providing subject matter expertise in materials, transduction and sensing, electro-mechanics, electronics, signal processing, navigation and systems engineering. Supporting them, we have an experienced design and production engineering team covering prototyping, quality, safety, product testing, manufacture and field support.

 Our team of people share thousands of years of engineering and manufacturing experience between them, including knowledge of what’s been done in the past, what’s worked and, crucially, what hasn’t. Using this knowledge within rigorous processes, allows us to efficiently determine what pieces can be re-used and called upon to fit into a solution, This includes materials, housing designs, flight-safe lithium primary batteries, subsea cable assemblies, connectors, sensors, transducers, software, firmware, and deployment hardware. There are not many elements of the subsea design puzzle that haven’t been encountered at some point in our history.

 A trusted supplier

 Sound business is in essence ‘doing the right thing’ as well as ‘doing the thing right.’ We know about the small details that have the potential to become big problems, so we are committed to ensuring our customers know about such risks in a timely manner.

We are equally committed to maintaining a safe, healthy and sustainable working environment, with a goal of zero harm. Everyone in Sonardyne is responsible for making this a reality, including complying with our customers, partners and contractors requirements for health and safety. Our knowledge and processes for product type testing, compliance testing such as CE, or providing documentation including ‘green passports,’ mean that you can be sure of getting a safe and reliable product from us. This consideration also includes a design and manufacturing process that meets waste material and hazardous substance regulations.

Flexibility

We have always been, and will remain, a dynamic and flexible company, reactive to our customers’ needs and the market conditions.

 In the current times, we’ve moved quickly to help our customers reduce cost and risk in their operations. Unlocking the full potential of 6G acoustics and SPRINT inertial has achieved real cost savings, allowing subsea operations to be completed in less time, proof of which can be found throughout this issue of Baseline.

 In a similar way, working with Sonardyne to provide your product design, supply chain, manufacturing and operational experience will help you save cost and control risk in developing and manufacturing subsea instrumentation for any application.

 So what does all this mean for the oil company that came to us with that monitoring application? Quite simply, they got a low risk, highly reliable and fit for purpose solution delivered on time and on budget.

I started with some typical customer comments, so it would be appropriate to finish with another one. After a recent off-site project meeting I was chatting to a thought leader from one of our key customers who said to me, “We come to Sonardyne because you guys get it. It’s not too much trouble to meet our requirements, you listen and you care about getting the detail right, you are enthused by the technology, you make what we need and you deliver.”

In closing, if you have a subsea measurement problem, you want to take your surface product subsea, you need test or operational support, or you are looking for custom engineering and manufacturing, think Sonardyne.