With over 95% of the world’s internet communication passing under the seabed, it takes very specialist know-how to lay and repair the vitally important cables that carry the data that speeds between continents.
That’s the expertise of the team at Wallsend-based SMD (Soil Machine Dynamics). As one of the first companies to enter into the business of subsea mining, SMD has grown into the world’s leading maker of robotic equipment, providing vital subsea services to offshore industries.
At the centre of SMD’s business is the design and build of Remotely Operated Vehicles, or ‘ROVs’. Used to construct and maintain underwater oil and gas infrastructure, these incredibly advanced robots also install communications and power cabling under the seabed.
Complete with robotic arms, ROVs are capable of burying cable, then if it needs repairing, finding, digging and dragging it back up to a repair ship. The cable is then fixed on deck before the ROV takes it back under thewater and reburies it safely beneath the seabed.
It’s been an incredible five years for SMD, as it has developed a huge market-share in the Asia-Pacific region and opened offices in Singapore, Houston and Brazil. Yet with all design and manufacturing still in the UK, SMD is symbolic of the buoyant offshore renewables market emerging here in the North East.
SMD Chief Executive Andrew Hodgson is also Chairman of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and he sees a key role for the region in the burgeoning offshore sector:
“Offshore renewables is a major opportunity for us, as we have the necessary manufacturing and engineering skills base here,” says Andrew. “I sell the region globally as the place where the technology companies are.”
It’s this fact that Andrew believes gives the Tyne the technological edge over rival locations such as Aberdeen.
“We’re sending a signal out to say that we want businesses to come to the North East who will bring new technology and R&D to the area. That’s what will deliver long-term sustainable economic growth.”
Winner of three Queen’s Awards, one for Export and two for innovation, SMD ships 80% of its products through the Port of Tyne to countries all over the world. The Port’s location is just 96 nautical miles from Dogger Bank and with its direct sea connections to five continents around the world, it is a crucial element in the future success plans for subsea businesses such as SMD.
“The river access is hugely important to us as our strategy develops”, confirms Andrew. “As we make larger, more complex equipment, we need the ability to bring vessels adjacent to our site – that’s a massive plus.”
“We’re in the Guinness Book of World Records for having built the largest subsea vehicle in the world,” adds Andrew. “But we’re now building something that’s twice the size in the workshop. We’re a world-leading technology company and it’s amazing some of the stuff we’re able to do.”
Andrew puts a lot of the company’s success down to the access it has to a strong talent pool.
“More than half of our employees have a 2:1 degree or above and a lot of them have PhDs. We have software engineers, control systems engineers, mechanical engineers, electronics and hydraulics engineers – our people are the best in the world in these areas.”
If proof were needed of the growing revolution in offshore engineering, Andrew points to the other big offshore companies that are starting to relocate their businesses in the North East.
“We have Deep Ocean working out of Teesside; Bibby Offshore, one of the fastest growing groups in the sector, are in Newcastle; Reef Subsea are a Norwegian-based company in Teesside and Technip Offshore Wind are based in Gateshead…It’s a real who’s who of the offshore world.”