[It’s been a year and a half since we moved to Korea, and sadly, most people still don’t have a great idea of what brought us here or the kind of work that J-Mar is doing. I’ve been bugging him for just about 18 months to start writing a post of his own to explain his work. It took several months for there to be concrete evidence of the project that is being built, but things are starting to come along. With his experience so far, he has a lot of new insight into the marvel that is large-scale project engineering and fabrication, and now he can share some of it with you.]
I have been working for a major oil and gas company for the last 8 years. Part of the company is dedicated to the management of engineering and construction of new facilities (platforms, pipelines, LNG facilities, etc). These projects are designed and built all over the world, so the company provides great opportunity for international travel and assignments. These are also some of the biggest construction projects in the world, so as someone that enjoys project work, you can see why I was drawn to this field.
The project that I am working on is a platform to be installed off the coast of Canada. The major piece of the platform includes drilling and processing equipment to extract the oil and gas, known in the industry as a topsides because all the equipment sits on top of the platform. The topsides has 4 levels, each about the size of a football field. The platform will also have a living quarters, which in and of itself is the size of a small hotel, and houses 220 people.
In the end, the topsides will be 51,000 tonnes of steel, equipment, piping, and cable. And all of this will sit on top of the gravity-based substructure (GBS), 627,500 tonnes of reinforced concrete. The concrete structure sits on the ocean floor, supports the topsides, and also stores liquids. Looking for a size comparison? Equivalent weight of the topsides is 440 mid-size 2-story houses (~2200 sq ft), 125 fully loaded Boeing 747s, or 7.5 Eiffel Towers.
Just one small problem: there is only one road that leads to the lot, and 4 months of the year it is too cold to work outside. The closest Home Depot and Lowes are hundreds of miles away. There are no contractors that live anywhere near this place. Start to get the picture? This project would cost 6, 8, maybe 10 times as much if we were to build it in Canada. At that point, there is no project, because the investment is more than the return. But, if you can find a way to build it somewhere else for a reasonable price as well as a cost-effective way to transport it to your lot, you may be in business.
So why Korea specifically? Surely there are other capable places to fabricate this thing? I am sure that someone could write a whole book on what makes Korea an optimal place to build large offshore facilities, but I will try to give you a little insight.
In the last 40 years, Korea has become a global center for shipbuilding and offshore fabrication (you can read A-Mar’s history lesson at the end). Between the three major shipbuilders – Daewoo, Samsung, and Hyundai – there is a skilled, trained Korean labor force more than 75,000 strong, not to mention the millions of subcontract workers that supply materials, equipment, and storage for all of this work. This is unheard of in any other industry. It still doesn’t compare to the 1.9 million Walmart employees, but you would probably admit that Walmart does not have the most skilled labor force.
With around 25,000 trained welders, pipefitters, and electricians, the yard that I work in puts out more tonnage of offshore fabrication work than anywhere else in the world. At peak, our project alone will have around 2,500 workers. Nowhere else could you call on trained workers and have that many people show up, much less be qualified to do the work. Access to this centralized, affordable labor in a relatively temperate environment makes it cost-effective for companies like mine to send expatriates to supervise and manage the project in Korea.
If you’re interested, take a look at HHI’s YouTube video below that gives a glimpse of HHI’s operations in Ulsan, specifically the shipbuilding division. [Likely due to proprietary restrictions of oil and gas projects, there aren’t any videos that show much of the offshore yard.]
Your next major question would probably be: J-Mar, what do YOU do in Korea? Stay tuned until my next post, and you’ll find out!
**A-Mar’s history lesson:
The reason that Korea, and Ulsan in particular, has become host to much of the world’s heavy industries construction is directly the result of the work of a self-made entrepreneur named Chung Ju-yung. Despite very little formal education, Chung capitalized on a major business opportunity: the industrialization and reconstruction of Korea following WWII as well as the Korean War. He ultimately spearheaded the development of the shipyard in Ulsan in the 1970s, quickly transforming Ulsan from a small coastal fishing village to an industrial powerhouse. Around here, he is considered a visionary and by the end of his life became involved in politics and even a part of the Seoul Olympic Committee.