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Eyes on the Future - June 2011
Pipavav Shipyard has an expansive warship-building capability

By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Rajula/Pipavav: In the fading lights of the dusk, the twin Goliath cranes nestling against the horizon announce the arrival of Pipavav Shipyard Ltd (PSL) on the southern coastline of Gujarat. Considered the biggest shipyard in India at the moment with the largest capacity for shipbuilding (courtesy one of the biggest dry docks in the world) Pipavav’s expanse is veiled by the creeping darkness and it is only in the morning that one realises what it means to be the biggest in the country.

Sprawled over 200 hectares with the sea front of nearly 720 metres, PSL takes advantage of both the land and the sea. Located in the Gulf of Khambat, it is blessed by calm tides, sparse population and vast emptiness all around, the basic ingredients for peace and progress. And progress is the mantra at the fastest growing shipyard. Superlatives seem to define PSL, where everything appears to be either the biggest or the best.

In the morning, as in the evening before, however, the vastness of the shipyard is dwarfed by the Goliath cranes, which demand instant attention and command subsequent reverence. Most people employed at PSL, whether directly in ship-building or not, realise this. Hence, their conversation is peppered with words like Goliath cranes (among the biggest in the world) and the dry dock (among the largest in the world). But not Debashis Bir, the chief operating officer, PSL. A veteran of ship-building, both in the private and the public sector, he is not swayed by euphemisms and superlatives. In India, he understands that one’s biggest assets can often become one’s biggest limitations. Sitting in his sparsely furnished room, with no trappings of power, he glosses over the adjectives.

“The focus of Pipavav was on creating general engineering skills and assets, which are germane to shipbuilding but not exclusive,” says Bir. With this as the guiding principal, PSL has created enormous facilities and techniques for steel cutting, steel bending and so on which can be used in other industries. “None of these facilities are specific to ship-building,” he says. The idea being that PSL overtime should become a national asset and not remain just a shipyard. It was this vision which led to the registration of Pipavav Ship Dismantling and Engineering Limited as a company in 1997. It took eight years for the shipyard to emerge from the company.

And perhaps, it was this vision that got PSL its first order even before the entire infrastructure was in place. Just as the PSL founder and chairman, Nikhil Gandhi looked out at the tranquil harbour in the Arabian Sea from a nearby hillock and visualised a future comprising a port and a shipyard nearly a decade and half back, the first customer of PSL (a European shipping company) saw the potential of under-construction dry dock and the skeletal Goliath cranes. And in less than a year of the shipyard becoming operational, PSL secured the orders for building two crude carrying Panamax vessel (large ships with the depth weight tonnage of 75,000 capable of traversing the Panama canal).

As the FORCE team walked along the dry dock, both the vessels were nestling in the dry dock in different stages of production. A small board next to the dry dock announced the launch date of the first one — May 29 — with the exclamation, ’25 days to go’! According to Bir, this launch will break all shipbuilding records in India. “Till date Cochin Shipyard held the record of fastest shipbuilding, from laying of the keel to the launch in 15 months. However, on May 29, we would have managed to do it in five months,” he says.

Generalities apart, FORCE team decided to focus on PSL assets specific to warship-building, whose future in India seems to have come of age. The government has budgets to spend on warships; the Indian Navy needs numerous ships, especially large ships like Landing Platform Docks (LPD), tankers and aircraft carriers, and specialised vessels like submarines because of growing security and military threats in the Indian Ocean region; the defence ministry feels the need to support indigenous shipbuilding implying optimal use of private sector assets; and export of even small warships would be a healthy indicator of the rising national economy. Given this backdrop, it was not surprising that the Chief of Naval Staff in 2009, Admiral Sureesh Mehta felt compelled to visit PSL. His aim was to see the largest dry dock (662m by 65m) in the country. Soon, the team from the directorate of naval design visited PSL to assess feasibility for dry docking of the coming aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya from Russia. It was agreed that no other shipyard in the country has a large dry-dock to refit the carrier. Once the carrier joins the navy and does its maiden voyage, it will require to be refitted, which means it will be brought to a dry dock and its condition inspected meticulously. The refit can take up to one to three months before the carrier is operationally rendered fit.

Probably, it was the naval chief’s visit that spurred PSL to think about building a second large dry dock alongside the existing one. The second dry dock will be 740m by 80m size and the project on its preliminary design has started in consultation with the UK-based Royal Haskoning design bureau. Alongside, PSL has floated its IPO and hopes to garner the requisite funds. Once done, work on the second dry dock will commence. While no one is gloating about the infrastructure here, the eyes are already set on the navy’s need for four LPDs, the RFI for which was issued long ago and the RFP is expected in the coming months. Where will the LPDs be made if they are to be done in India? The answer is obvious. The only other dry dock at Cochin will be unavailable being involved in the construction of the indigenous Air Defence Ship (small carrier). The dry dock at HSL is about 200m length. Thus, PSL is the natural choice not because of its large dry dock, but other infrastructural assets as well.

In comparative terms, PSL has the capacity of 12,000 ton of steel production in a month against 500 to 600 tons at HSL, and a mere 200 to 300tons at MDL. Steel production means that so much steel can be used for shipbuilding, which is possible only if the shipyard has 100 per cent Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines and uses robotics as well. It is a treat to watch these at PSL, where the entire infrastructure is distributed over two sites separated by a four km road; the road tarmac is strong enough to withstand movement of heavy blocks from one site to another. FORCE team was first escorted to the Block Making Site (BMS), which has five fabrication bays. There are more machines than men working here; yet if at anytime 1,500 personnel are engaged here, it gives a good idea of the massive bays. As one enters the first bay, the PSL work culture looks in the face. There is a huge board with reads that defects are caused by a lack of knowledge, a lack of proper facilities, and a lack of attention. Once this is understood, the rest is left to automation which is all pervasive here. From the lifting of plate to its treatment for the primer coating, PSL has machines imported from China, Japan, and Netherlands. It is fascinating to watch the state-of-art imported line-heating technology, profile cutting machines and torch cutting machines, each doing a specific task. The underlying philosophy is to bring efficiency, accuracy and banish fatigue.

Steel fabrication is done in the next bay. This means cutting the steel to desired specification panels. Steel bending is an intricate and involved task requiring plenty of expertise. As an aside, certain bending of steel for the Scorpene hull being manufactured at MDL, Mumbai in collaboration with DCNS of France was done in this bay. Once the panels are made, they are built into blocks in the next bay. Each block has three to five panels. To give an idea, a 75,000 DWT Panamax merchant ship (one recently built at PSL from South Korean design) has about 130 blocks, or 13 to 14 mega-blocks. And this is where the PSL scores over other shipyards. It has general facilities cranes which can lift 150tons, and the two GC can in tandem heave 1,200tons. The blocks are made at the BMS and then transported to the second site which comprises the dry dock, two each GCs and Level Laffing Cranes (LLC) and the PSL administrative block. The GCs are used for erection of blocks (the blocks are converted into mega blocks here) and lowering them into the dry dock, while the LLCs have the capability to lift 40tons of materials to feed into the ship and dock for work from any angle. FORCE team climbed atop one LLC and saw the expansive view of the shipyard hugging the sea. Given such facilities, PSL is the only shipyard that can be used for modular ship construction, the imperative for fast and good shipbuilding. Stringent quality control for big block making, which is PSL’s speciality, is done at the BMS by three independent teams: the shipyards own team, the ship owners control team, and the survey team from the design bureau.

Aware of its unique facilities, the BMS has its own Technical Training Centre (TTC), where training for floor people working on various machines and for third party surveyors is imparted. For example, welding is a specialised task as it is done in the vertical and overhead dimensions. There are a total of 400 engineers and nearly 2,400 skilled workers employed at PSL, whose number is expected to grow to about 12,000 more personnel in the coming years. For this reason, PSL has tie-ups with nearby ITI’s for manpower. These institutes located within 50km radius of Rajula are at Mahuva, Savarkundla, Palitana and Gogha.

Senior PSL officials are conscious about PSL’s emerging role since it got the license for warship production in 2010. The license permits Pipavav to bid for submarines, destroyers, frigates, OPVs as well as aircraft carriers. This means a few things. The profit margins in warship building are much more than building commercial ship. The competition in building commercial ships is intense and hence to remain competitive, the profit margins are frugal. Warship building on the other hand requires added value engineering. Even as PSL has the capacity to build four to five major warships at the same time, it needs to focus on design and specialised engineering knowhow with technology support garnered from abroad. Bir told FORCE that while PSL is already working with Komac and Wartsila shipyards from South Korea and Singapore for commercial ships and the Russians for warships, it is exploring new avenues to meet futuristic demands.

One such challenging area would be submarine building which is a different class of vessel than warships. To make a closed hull requires accuracy and entirely novel equipment handling. Considering that the Japanese and Korean do not trade in defence technology, the choice for submarine partnership would have to come from Europe; Germany, France, and Italy besides of course Russia. PSL has signed or is in the process of signing MoUs for basic design with ship and submarine builders in these countries. According to Bir, “A European strategic partner could help us in production design as well.” With this in mind a high level DCNS team had lately visited PSL; DCNS is looking for suitable Indian partner to bid for the second line of submarines whose RPP is expected this year.

PSL officials are also aware of the constraints that will be automatic once the shipyard commences major warship works. The nearly 100 Chinese advisors who are helping with infrastructure and commercial shipbuilding at PSL will have to leave. While he does not say so, Bir is unhappy about this prospect as he relishes the Chinese contribution to PSL. Another issue will be the restricted entry of media into PSL. The way FORCE team could move around PSL facilities is simply unthinkable at the MDL. On the positive side, Bir sees possibilities of India exporting small warship vessels like patrol boats and OPVs in the coming years. There is an increasing demand for vessels for other-than-war-operations to include pollution control, anti-piracy, rescue missions and so on. “Indian shipbuilding will have the capability and capacity to contribute to maybe coalition ships of friendly navies,” Bir says.

But, for all this to happen, India should view shipbuilding not as a sunrise but as a mother industry. A large ship after all is like a floating city, which must have all and sundry provisioning. Why cannot we have all such small industries grow near a shipyard? India with its growing shipbuilding industry should look at centralising engineering expertise needed for shipbuilding, Bir concludes. The first baby step would be to focus on ship repairs to meet both Indian and friendly neighbours requirements.

The First Order

Pipavav Shipyard Limited has acquired the distinction of becoming the first Indian shipyard in the private sector to get the Indian licence for warship production. The shipyard has recently been awarded the contract to build five Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) for the Indian Navy at an estimated cost of Rupees 3,000 crores by the defence ministry. The first delivery will be in 42 months of signing the contract. Confirming the news, the company’s chief operating officer, production, Debashis Bir told FORCE that the shipyard will aim to deliver the vessels ahead of schedule. If this happens, the navy will get the vessels before time, the government’s confidence in the private shipbuilding industry will enhance, and of course, the shipyard will make more money.

What steps are involving in this construction? The basic design of the OPVs will come from the Russian Severnoye Design Bureau under the memorandum of understanding signed by the shipyard with the Russian Roboronexport. According to Bir, ‘The basic design would take about eight to 10 months. Meanwhile the shipyard will enter into technical and commercial negotiations. The technical issues will involve the user (Indian Navy), the shipyard and the Russian design bureau, while commercial matters will be settled between the defence ministry and the shipyard.’ An important step will be the finalisation of major equipment like main engine, air conditioning and so on. Once this is done, the functional design for the OPVs will be finalised. This will be done within the three: the Russian design bureau, the Indian Navy and the shipyard. This will be a major effort as it involves freezing the vessel design for production. The last conceptual step will be the production design which is the shipyard’s responsibility. This implies dissection of the functional design into bits and pieces to make it compatible with the shipyard’s production capabilities. After all this is done, the shipyard would swing into action for procurement of steel and major equipment. When asked if the construction of OPVs would require additional infrastructure at the shipyard, Bir said that the shipyard is well equipped for all this. He added that more storage space would be created to house the purchased major equipment for the OPVs. To make the point how shipyards have to think steps ahead, Bir on asking replied that they have made computer models of the 2,000 ton OPV and this should involve making a total of about 12 blocks. Needless to add, Pipavav excels in making big blocks.


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