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Japanese yards gain newbuilding momentum

The Naval Architect: November 2015

It is an unlikely event, but given the economic irregularities that persist globally it should perhaps not be a surprise that by some parameters Japan has regained second spot in the newbuilding league from South Korea.

Intense competition, over capacity in the shipbuilding market and a supportive domestic market have combined to see Japanese yards regain some market share that they lost long ago to what was then the upstart newcomer on the Korean peninsula.

Japanese yards won more shipbuilding orders than their South Korean neighbours in the third quarter of 2015. According to shipbroker Clarkson Research Services, Chinese shipbuilders won new orders of 3.48 million compensated gross tonnes (CGTs) in September 2015 while the Japanese yards accrued 2.36 million CGTs and the Korean yards a total of 2.11 million CGTs.

In the first half of this year Clarkson’s had already reported that Japanese yards had accrued more vessel orders than Korea, 22% of the vessel orders as compared to 21% for Korea, with China way out in front with 45% of the orderbook. Though the Koreans remained in second place in terms of deadweight, with orders totalling 29% of the total deadweight compared to 20% for Japan and 43% in China.

However, when the first nine months of the year are taken into account South Korea remains the front runner with new orders totalling 8.77 million CGTs, with China accruing 6.33 million CGTs in orders and Japan with 5.99 million CGTs.

As the newbuilding market has entered into extraordinary territory shipyards have adjusted their designs, entered new markets and streamlined their production processes so that they can maintain cash flow and stay ahead of their competitors. One such yard, Oshima, situated near Nagasaki in Japan, has improved its productivity through the use of welding robots and due to the success of these robots Oshima is now entering into negotiations with the Danish manufacturer, Inrotech, to acquire more of the machines.

According to Morten Arndal Nielsen, the chief commercial officer at inrotech, robots can replace the work performed by four welders and reduce the welding time for a job that normally takes 440 hours to just 120 hours, as witnessed in a Dutch yard.

Essentially the robots are built with Adaptive Logic Programming Technology (ALPT) which allows the machine to scan the job, detect the gaps and the extent of the welding job before performing the weld operation.

Initially Oshima bought eight welding robots which operate on a rail mounting, but the latest welding machines will be able to handle butt welds as well as filler welds. Essentially the laser sensor could not adequately scan the job for a butt weld, with two plates next to each other. However, the latest robots have now been fitted with a 3D scanning system developed by inrotech that has “transformed the scanning process,” says Nielsen. “The robot will create a welding sequence from the first string to the last string, up to 70 passes or more if necessary, and then perform the weld,” he says.

Technology such as the inrotech robots have helped Japanese yards maintain a competitive edge against tough competition from both China and South Korea, while the yards have also benefitted from an expected increase in orders for LNG tankers.

According to some analysts LNG business is set to break through the US$120 billion mark this year and the expectation is that it will continue to grow and that will require more vessels to transport the LNG traded.

Typically, Japanese yards have built LNG tankers with the spherical Moss tanks, which are generally more expensive than the membrane tanks favoured by the South Koreans. Analysts report that there will be between 50 and 60 LNG tankers delivered during 2017 and 2018 and that up to 25% of the total deliveries of these ships will be from Japanese yards.

If these orders materialise the Japanese may continue to challenge the South Koreans for the second spot in the newbuilding league and it could ultimately see the yards surge into second place for some time if the Korean yards’ economic travails persist.

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