The future of shipbuilding for the oil and gas market

At first it all seemed quite straightforward with Veecraft Marine, a boat building company focusing on the oil and gas and military markets in and from South Africa, based in Paarden Eiland. But look more closely at the many design and project examples their website showcases, and it is startling. Front gunners, ballistic shielding and armoured-plate windows? Every conceivable ship design within 10 to 40 metres using aluminium or steel, whatever the client desires? This company is far from your average shipbuilder.

“We started about eight years ago purely on boats,” Andre van Niekerk, Managing Director and co-founder says. “My partner and I have been in the marine industry for about 20 years and we basically came together with an idea to start a new company having worked in shipbuilding and boatbuilding before.”

Veecraft got off to a rocketing start, securing lucrative contracts with the local national ports authorities, which provided a great springboard for the company to grow. “Initially we targeted the South African market and it was the only one we were really capturing because it was a bit of a mission in the marketplace,” Niekerk says. “Then over the years we evolved, acquired some very clever designs, ended up marketing them overseas and the rest is history.”

Veecraft’s story is quite fascinating. Niekerk talks about focusing on two markets gathering pace, continuing to offer acclaimed expertise in these markets and the next course of action for this unique and pioneering company.

What the client wants

Niekerk says that at Veecraft the core team does pretty much everything imaginable. “This industry, as you’re probably aware, expands and has ups and downs as it goes along, so we’re able to keep a core team of about 50 people. We’ve expanded up to about 250 (previously), depending on the size of the contracts that we have at any one time,” he says.

“We do everything in-house; from the boiler-making, the welding, carpentry, engine installation, painting, electrics, you name it.” He says that the Veecraft team knew there was a requirement out in the marketplace for custom-built commercial vessels.

“A lot of the opposition out there — and far bigger companies — offer standard designs. Those vessels were all you could get. Basically you could get a 25 metre, a 20 metre, use all of their layouts, their systems and there were no other options,” he says. “We went to our customers and their customers in the market we’ve been chasing, and offered a proven hull; we knew that the vessels in service have particular hull shapes, and we were able to offer the customer a vessel that can be changed in terms of layout, different proportions, systems—really whatever the customer wants, we can give them.” Niekerk likens this to going into a car dealership, saying that you’re not going to purchase a car, “unless you can test drive it, touch it and feel it.”

“The same applies for our vessels. We don’t want to sell a customer a vessel which is a concept boat – a piece of paper.” Veecraft has associated itself with some highly-regarded international architects and designers who can step in and help to deliver exactly what any client wishes.

“We really rely on their research and development that they’ve done over the years to be able to offer our clients what they require,” Niekerk says. “We also realised that there were key markets we need to chase.” These are the two markets which Veecraft continues to chase today, with great success.

O&G and military market-focus

Niekerk says that the Veecraft team perceived oil and gas as an expanding market, particularly with the threat of piracy looming over operations today. “It’s right here on our doorstep in Africa,” he says.

“Everyone’s now chasing for patrol boats that have got ballistic shielding and armour-plated windows. That’s something we’re quite familiar with and able to offer them.”

Veecraft have sought to provide crew boats, patrol boats and survey vessels to the oil and gas industry, amongst other vessels. “Then in association with that there’s the military side of things with patrol boats into the South African navy, police forces, the coastguards and so on,” Niekerk says. “Those are the two target markets we’re chasing at the moment.”

Niekerk says that a couple of exciting projects the company is contracted for today are with INCAT Australia. “One is for a patrol boat/crew boat which is recorded as a toll boat because they specifically call them standby safety vessels,” he says.

“What these boats do is to patrol around the oil rigs from a safety point of view, but they also work as a back-up to be able to take crews across if necessary and if there’s an emergency response they can also satisfy that requirement. These things have the ballistic shielding and the structures where the passengers sit are actually bullet proof with armoured-plate windows and that makes it quite unique.”

Another is a 24 — metre search and rescue vessel which offers something a little special. “That has space for dropping off and recovering cargo from a helicopter — not landing on the boat, but for dropping off there’s sufficient space on the deck to be able to retrieve cargo,” Niekerk explains. “She can also be bullet proofed and it’s a catamaran design so it’s very stable and very fast.”

If these results are anything to go by, it appears that by successfully targeting these markets, Veecraft has both enjoyed great contracts and delivered on all front for these clients.

Expanding horizons

Skimming through the array of examples on the company website, it becomes clear that when Niekerk says, “custom,” that is exactly what he means. It’s as if the possibilities for vessels are endless, and he says that what we see online only makes up about one per cent of what is out there.

“That’s why you have to target specific markets. It’s very difficult to just go out there,” he explains. “We started the business on that basis that whatever people wanted, we would build for them. But now we need to focus ourselves and because of our past experience, we’ve already delivered crew boats into Dubai, we’ve delivered research vessels into Ireland and quite a few patrol boats to Qatar, to the South African Navy.”

So how does a company that understands the value of target markets and keeping a core staff which is within shifts in demand go about expanding? “We’re definitely looking at an expansion program based on the amount of work we predict we will be getting out of these two markets,” Niekerk reasons.

“That means that there has to be some clever planning in terms of automating some of our systems and that’s really what we’re focusing on right now — how to simplify some of the vessel construction to make it more cost-effective, and spend a lot of time on the design so that we can mechanise the fabrication of the vessels and speed it up.”

The company will even look to sub-contract other parts of the vessels to smaller companies where they could fabricate them and deliver for us to assemble, further building those partnerships which have served them so well with flexible team members, designers and meeting client demand. A company with great leadership, the ability to shrink and grow, and the tools and inclination to deliver on every project is surely bound for big things. Veecraft Marine is somewhat of a revelation; how shipbuilding and boat building should be done.