THE deep quays on the banks of the Tyne, once at the heart of the shipbuilding industry, are now home to the world’s largest steel tube umbilical assembly machine, part of a large investment by Technip Umbilicals.

Based on Walker riverside, the Tyneside operation is the principal base of the global engineering company, supplying the critical umbilical systems that link remote subsea oil wells to fixed or floating production systems.

Sarah Cridland, the Newcastle-based managing director of the company’s three sites in North-East England, the US and Angola, sets out the business’ challenges and how it is exploiting new opportunities in the oil and gas market.

She said: “This North-East site has a proud history of manufacturing.

"It started over 40 years ago making mainly thermoplastic umbilical products, however, the plant also has a substantial track record in supplying steel tube umbilicals and is a major global player in both markets.

"We have a strong engineering and technical workforce in Newcastle, which is a significant asset to our business.

“The umbilical systems we design and supply enable the essential connection to the subsea control system either through electrical or fibre optics cables, provide power either hydraulic or electrical, and deliver the vital chemicals needed to operate and maintain the oil and gas extraction equipment installed on the seabed.

"Our Walker facility is capable of producing the most complex, longest and deepest umbilicals in the world, which are increasingly required as the subsea industry taps into reserves located in deeper water and further offshore.

“The deepwater quay we have on the Tyne is fundamental to our success and an invaluable asset for delivery of our products, allowing very large installation vessels direct access to our facility.”

Centre stage of Technip Umbilicals’ plans is the impressive vertical helix assembly machine, which is based in one of the River Tyne’s highest buildings, standing at about 57 metres.

The scale of the production is such that the umbilicals being constructed are stored on numerous large reels or huge carousels capable of handling extra-long lengths.

Since it was installed two years ago, the machine has manufactured more than 300 kilometres of these multi-function umbilicals for a number of major operators and for worldwide projects.

The business has set world records for its projects, including the first high temperature umbilical for Total and the largest diameter and heaviest weight per metre for BP.

Ms Cridland has worked for Technip and its predecessors since graduating in manufacturing sciences and engineering from Strathclyde University. She started her career 24 years ago at the same time as a previous downturn in the oil industry and has never looked back, despite the challenging economic climate replicated today.

After time in the subsea industry in Aberdeen, working in EPCI projects, Ms Cridland worked at various locations around the world, including Brazil and West Africa.

She is particularly proud of the company’s manufacturing in Angola, which now employs over 200 people and is run by a wholly Angolan workforce.

Fourteen years ago her career progression resulted in a move to Newcastle and a following promotion 18 months ago, she is now managing director of Technip Umbilicals with responsibility for 800 employees.

She was delighted to be able to bring the substantial investment to the UK, strengthening its place at the forefront of oil and gas technology.

Another integral part of this future planning is a response to the growing call, and need, for more women to enter the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) sectors.

Technip Umbilicals is playing its part in this push for more diversity in the oil, gas and offshore industries.

Ms Cridland said: “It can be hard to find women in my sector but we have an even divide of 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men in our research and development engineering team based in Walker, which is great.

“We recently supported the North-East women entrepreneur of the year awards as I believe it is so important to encourage senior female business leaders, in particular at director level.

"Diversity is a definite advantage to any business, as it is proven that the best performing companies are those with a good gender mix.

“With this eye on our next generation of engineers we are working with partners, such as EEF, to encourage participation in science clubs at school level.

"One project we were supporting resulted in the pupils getting through to the national finals, which was excellent news.

“Whenever I can, I give talks to schools and universities to encourage young people to realise the potential of a Stem career.

"We have taken on a number of apprentices and graduates who have been very successful for our business.

"For example, one of them is now a process engineer with us.”

Ms Cridland said many people don’t realise what an engineering career can provide in terms of exciting challenges.

She said: “There is often the perception it is about fixing a car engine but it is not just that.

"It can be working in any country in the world, being practical and managing multi-million pound projects that change lives.”

Part of Technip Umbilicals’ Tyneside facility includes the company’s global research and development centre, which is dedicated to finding and developing new technologies.

Ms Cridland added: “The oil industry is under constant pressure to find new wells and sources, so as a result, we need to be able to produce longer lengths of umbilicals, capable of withstanding more and more challenging conditions.

"Not only is the price of oil low, there is also a growing demand for more cost-effective ways of providing the technological links between platforms and other bases.

"Essentially there is an appetite to make fields more economically viable.

“There have been challenges in the oil and gas industry in recent years with very little investment but now it is in a different situation with greater efficiency in its economy.

"I see pressure to make existing brownfield sites as productive as possible so we are constantly looking at ways of helping to reduce our client’s costs.”

The oil and gas landscape is adapting to the reality of a lower oil price and has seen a number of major players forming strategic alliances, including Technip.

Ms Cridland sees this as a great move forward in the battle to win substantial oil industry contracts as the complimentary technological expertise and project execution experience can be combined to deliver real economic and technological benefits to our clients.

The business has one of the most senior women in the oil and gas industry worldwide at its helm, breaking the mould and innovating in one of the world’s harshest sectors to produce ground-breaking technologies.

It is a success story in every sense.