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Subsea hydraulics is a very niche area in the world of hydraulics engineering. It’s an area that is mostly focused in the oil and gas industry (90%), 9% in military and 1% in other. It encompasses seafloor systems, surface control equipment and the control of oil wells amongst other tasks such as cable maintenance and seabed exploration.
The Role of the Subsea Hydraulics Engineer
Subsea hydraulics engineers have some seriously interesting challenges to solve. Not only are they faced with the day to day hydraulic challenges that most of us deal with, but they also have to handle the sea, its power and pressure. The pressure found on the seafloor is extreme. What’s even more extreme is the pressure found inside the wellbores for underwater energy extraction.
One of the biggest challenges for these engineers is the development of Blowout Preventers (BOPs) that are used to contain oil. It’s what prevents oil from emerging into the ocean and creating a giant spill that results in a wildlife emergency. This can prove to be very costly for oil companies.
BOPs have to be designed, tested and operated in addition to having procedures written and processes established. Subsea hydraulic engineers also handle other equipment such as the subsea robots that are also known as Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). ROVs need to be winched into and out of the water using hydraulic power at the winch. In fact, you may find some of our hydraulic power units in use at winches.
Developing a deep water oil field requires an astonishing amount of equipment. Although there are some electric systems used, the controls are typically managed with hydraulics. The field could be giant and cover miles from one side to the other.
Oil Fields can be miles across...
...and involve large amounts of subsea equipment. The job of the subsea hydraulics engineer is to ensure that all equipment is working the way it should be. There are calculations to do, designs to create in addition to plenty of operating procedure and process writing and revising. There’s also a requirement to develop a schematic of how each piece of equipment sourced from different vendors is going to operate and interface on the sea floor. This takes a lot of PowerPoint and Excel use to map this out for the other employees and management!
The Subsea Hydraulics Engineer Prevents Disasters
A major part of the role is to do the small day to day things that go a long way in preventing anything exciting from happening. We don’t want to have to get involved in issues such as needing to perform an oil spill recovery. In this industry, even the smallest mistakes can cause disasters that poison marine wildlife, sink expensive equipment or even kill people. It’s something that we take very seriously.
Some hydraulic engineers in other companies do tasks such as design remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and launch and rescue systems (LARS) for use by the oil and gas industry, movie makers, the navy, explorers, scientists and even treasure hunters.
Hydraproducts has customers in a broad range of industries, including in the subsea fields. We supply hydraulic power units from micro size to bespoke size to suit whatever is required in all industries, including marine related.
Subsea hydraulic components have long been used for marine and deep sea applications. Even in the 1970’s large machines had started to use the first hydraulic components to help with underwater activities for industries such as oil and gas.
Tasks such as trenching, digging, drilling and other heavy machinery activities could be carried out at depths of up to 200 meters below the surface of the water. Hydraulic valves, machines and cylinders were used to drive manipulator arms, drilling tools and track drives.
In these early days it was relatively rare to see these types of machines in operation, so the components were usually costly. However, this evolved over the following years and deep sea hydraulics became an area that was marginally less costly to operate in.
In this century, focus is on deep sea hydraulics and its ability to assist with the sourcing and extraction of fossil fuels and minerals. Greater depths can be reached through the use of ROVs – remote operated vehicles / subsea crawlers. Depths of up to 6000m can now be reached and materials can be harvested using this new generation of subsea machinery.
It’s no longer necessary to position the harvesting and processing equipment on either a ship or a platform. It has to go down onto the seabed to carry out the necessary activities. Hydraulic machinery is ideal for operations such as this due to their power, precision and flexibility.
The type of applications that you’ll see subsea hydraulics used for include the handling of heavy loads and installation of heavy machinery. Tools used to build marine based structures on the seabed such as hydraulic hammers that drive piles are just one of the applications that are used. Others include civil engineering structures such as harbours, marinas and bridges that need to have foundations or objects anchored into the seabed.
ROVs also make it possible to carry out seabed test drillings for oil and gas industry operatives. They can also install heavy equipment that can protect pipelines and cables used for transporting oil and gas, from dangers such as shipwrecks, earthquakes and naturally strong sea currents. They can bury the pipelines into the ocean floor to keep them secure and safe from risks. The ROVs are highly sophisticated in their manoeuvrability and handling.
Another way that subsea hydraulics are used in marine related industries is for deep sea mining of the sea floor. A lot of deposits of high grade rare earth minerals including gold, silver and copper have recently been discovered in the Pacific Ocean. Subsea hydraulics make it possible to harvest them. For example heavy duty ROVs can be operated hydraulically in order to establish the construction required to harvest these minerals.
When it comes to subsea machinery, hydraulics can help with the launch and recovery of highly valuable and expensive subsea equipment in addition to the control of machines such as the ROVs.
There are many challenges and engineering obstacles that need to be overcome in order for hydraulic components to work in the deep sea. Not only must the materials be able to resist the high pressure of being underwater, and so very deep underwater, it’s essential that they can handle the pressure and the salt present in the water. One of seawater’s unfavourable powers is its ability to rapidly corrode materials. Therefore, protection against this corrosion is essential. This might be addressed by engineers with special coatings or by using materials that are corrosion resistant.
To prevent a short circuit, all hydraulic valves that are solenoid operated also have to be protected against contact with water. It’s not easy to hoist a machine up if it needs to be fixed. It’s important to provide subsea machinery with a lifespan that is both lengthy and maintenance free.
If you’re looking for reliable and durable subsea hydraulic power units, contact us today.
When you work with hydraulics every day it is easy to take the technology for granted, especially when you know how it works and for what purposes. However, most hydraulic engineers focus on a specific application of the mechanisms and may not realise that there are other uses for the technology that we use every day. For example, petrol pumps use hydraulics to draw the fuel up from the reservoir and deliver it into your vehicle. When you draw up to the pump you make use of hydraulics to stop the car; most vehicle braking systems use hydraulic action to exert force on the brake discs. Hydraulics then allow you to fill the car up, and drive away, using your brakes several times on the journey home.
If you go to any large shopping centre or office there are lifts, which can make use of hydraulics to raise and lower the elevator car. Some older lifts still use a pulley system, but many newer systems use hydraulics. The sandwiches you have for lunch also rely on hydraulics to exist; the mechanisms in large bakeries use this technology to move conveyor belts and other large scale mixing machines to keep the dough moving along the production line. If you sit at an office chair while eating lunch you are also making use of hydraulics, as the mechanism that allows you to lower and raise the seat is usually a hydraulic one.
Visiting the dentist also involves hydraulics at least once, more if you drive there and fill the car up on the way! Dentist chairs use hydraulic pumps to lower and raise the body of the chair as well as to adjust the angle of the foot rest and head rest. Hospital beds and barbers chairs work on the same principle. Vehicle mechanics use hydraulic lifts to raise vehicles up for inspection and repair work in much the same way.
Hydraulics also make an appearance in entertainment; theatre stages that can be raised and lowered use hydraulic systems to make this happen, and similarly, theme parks rides use them to create and control motion. On arriving home from a day out at the theatre or a theme park you may drive your car into a garage with a hydraulically operated opening mechanism, or through a gate that employs the same technology to open and close at the touch of a button. Once in the house you may have to load the dishwasher and set it to run; even here there are hydraulics at work to improve water pressure for better cleaning. Hydraulics are found in many aspects of everyday life that it is possible to make use of six or seven different applications in a single day.
If you’ve been acquainted with us for some time, you’ll know already be aware that we design and manufacture hydraulic systems however, we are mostly focused on the mobile hydraulic power packs. We have the facilities to test our products to ensure that they are tweaked to deliver the best possible performance under a wide range of circumstances. Although having the right facilities does help us with the development of new products, the greatest power that we have is the minds of our engineers.
What makes a great engineer? Is it their brilliance at technical matters?
Their determination to make things work? Well add both of these talents to passion and you’ll be on the right track. The minds of our engineers are able to create new answers to our hydraulic system questions – and they’ve got a whole truck load of wit to go along with their deliveries. Our engineers work hard to develop products that they know solve power challenges for our customers. They are resourceful when it comes to blending engineering tricks with the need to keep to the regulations of our industry and safety considerations.
It’s not just anybody who can thrive in this type of role. We suspect that our engineers were playing with Lego at the age of two in their quest to build (and knowing 2 year old, destroy) and they no doubt evolved into using Fischer Technic and Meccano to build their dream designs.
Now that our hydraulic engineers are operating on real work projects and applying lessons learned from the deep knowledge they’ve acquired around hydraulic system design, they are really flourishing in their development.
Taking valves and pipe mounts to create products that will last longer and be more dependable takes a lot of thinking. When working with clients who are in unfamiliar territory, it can be challenging for any engineer. Oftentimes, the customer won’t have a mathematical or design mind, and specification setting can be an area that is not easy.
However, if you’re looking to solve issues and you want to get it right, you may want to take the time to work with a hydraulic power pack manufacturer such as us.
Like health, the usefulness of hydraulics sometimes only becomes apparent in its absence. Pictures of agricultural workers of centuries past may look attractive on greetings cards, but in reality, it was gruelling and sometimes dangerous work. The adoption of hydraulic technology not only made agriculture physically less demanding on the workers, but also more efficient and with the growth in world population over the 20th century, the point is becoming increasingly important. While it may be too much to expect farmers to be expert engineers as well, it is useful to have at least a foundation in how hydraulic technology benefits agriculture.
Hydraulic technology was initially adopted, quite literally, to replace horses. Great, heavy horses gave way to tractors, which depended on hydraulics both internally (for braking and steering) and externally (for lifting or digging). In many cases some degree of human intervention was still required and in some cases this could be quite significant. Not only did earlier tractors need their actions (such as lifting or ploughing) to be carefully controlled by humans, but even then there was a relatively high degree of imprecision in the process, which meant either a certain level of wastage had to be accepted or humans had to undertake what was essentially clean-up work after the tractor had finished the bulk of it. As the technology developed, however, hydraulics was combined with advanced electronics, to fine-tune pressure and flow way beyond the skill of any human operator. This has resulted in such exciting developments as precision planters, which can not only deliver seed in the optimum way over a changing field, but also deliver fertilizer at the same time. This gives the seed a much better chance of growing to maturity, leading to better yields and reduced costs, which can be passed on to the consumer.
Earlier hydraulic technology had fixed pressure and flow. Depending on the situation it was sometimes possible to change the settings, but this required human intervention. Modern tractors have a vastly greater hydraulic capacity than their predecessors with significantly more remote valves. At the same time, the traditional PTO shaft (complete with chains and drive shaft) has largely given way to hydraulic pipes and hoses which are driven directly by the hydraulic motor, making for simpler operation, meaning high reliability. As mentioned, the use of electronic controls allows for great precision, reducing wastage and therefore costs. In short, the combination of hydraulics and electronics has allowed agriculture to move on from a human worker making their best judgement about what is required to a machine using vast amounts of data from sensors to decide what is required and adjusting itself accordingly.
The coupling of the power of hydraulics with the precision of electronics opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities. At a very basic level, it can simply be used to increase the efficiency with which the tractor operates, thereby reducing the amount of fuel used. At a more complex level, it could be used to increase the range and scope of the tasks tractors can perform, thereby enabling micro-agriculture, a means of farming in which sensors throughout a field provide information on the precise conditions in each part of the field, so that farmers can optimize their processes with the highest possible degree of precision.
The development of modern hydraulics arguably echoes the development of modern industry. During the industrial revolution, factories worked largely on brawn with images from the period showing steam-belching machines operated by hard-working labourers. Today, the focus of industry is on working smarter rather than just applying muscle power. Part of the reason for this is that the nature of the products being made has changed. Factories today manufacture technologies that previous generations could barely have imagined. Margins are as thin as silicon wafers and any error can have significant financial consequences. Similar comments apply to other hydraulics strongholds such as construction.
While hydraulics on its own may lack the precision needed for a modern industrial environment, when it is coupled with advanced electronics, industry can have the best of both worlds. One of the reasons why hydraulics has been appreciated for centuries is because its lifting power is smooth. When partnered with digital electronic sensors capable of undertaking thousands of measurements a second, hydraulic systems can be refined to a very high degree of precision. Another reason for the longevity of hydraulics is the fact that the essentially simple mechanics behind the technology makes for a high degree of reliability. Given that reducing variability in manufacturing (and other areas) has been a major preoccupation for industry since the invention of Six Sigma in the mid 1980s any technology noted for its consistency already has a strong point in its favour.
These new enhanced hydraulic systems are moving into unexpected places. The same technology that powers heavy-lifting equipment and automotive systems may soon be finding its way into the human body. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are working on a project to create orthotics using hydraulics. As the body ages (or as the results of sporting activity or accidents), joints are often the places where the effects of wear and tear begins to show first. The idea of using hydraulics to replace knee and ankle joints has obvious benefits given the loads carried by them even during day-to-day activity. As the technology develops, it may well become small enough for tiny joints such as knuckles, worn out by excessive keyboard use. They estimate that the technology will be a reality in anything between 10 and 20 years from now.
Injuries are a relatively common occurrence for people working with hydraulics, especially those working in the maintenance and/or repair of hydraulic equipment. The most serious injury is a pressurised fluid injection, but accidents can also happen with moving parts when the stored energy in the system is not released before inspections and repairs are made. Unfortunately, it is not routine for tags and gauges to be used to denote places where energy is stored. The engineer must study the schematic thoroughly before starting any investigative work, in order to be sure that there is no danger of anything moving while they are working on the machinery.
If pressure gauges were used to show the residual pressure left in moving parts the engineer could utilise the pressure relief valve to release the stored energy and make the hydraulic equipment safe to work on. Relieving pressure stops anything moving of its own accord, which could be dangerous, and also reduces the risk of high pressure hydraulic fluid injection injuries, which can be fatal.
When inspecting for leaks in seals and hoses, it is important that pressure is released before checking but even then, it is not advisable to check with your hands. Instead, perform a visual inspection and look for other signs of leaks, such as fluid on the floor or on parts of machinery that sit underneath the suspected location of the leak.
Hydraulic equipment can be just as dangerous as electrical circuits for those investigating and repairing faults; but electrical work is governed by strict regulations which include the use of lockout tags and labels denoting the location of potentially dangerous components. Hydraulic equipment is not covered by such stringent regulations and as such, it is at the discretion of the designer whether pressure gauges and safety accessories are included in the machinery at the time of building. These items can be retrofitted by the owner, but this is not often done and this means hydraulic engineers must spend a lot of time reading manuals and schematics to understand where the dangers lurk, before being able to safely get on with any repair work.
Just because it isn't legally required, there are no good arguments for overlooking these safety precautions, but several reasons why they should be addressed., such as: reduced downtime on repair and maintenance tasks, a reduction in the potential for workplace injuries and a speedier repair. All effected by removing the need to spend time studying diagrams to pinpoint potential dangers. Employee health and safety is of paramount importance to employers, and this could well be the biggest reason why hydraulic equipment should be fitted with pressure gauges, relief valves and lockout tags, to prevent tampering with settings and to alert engineers to the locations to address first.
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