Three Yards Beat the Market Headwinds
Several family-owned yards on the American Gulf Coast have found innovative ways to reach new markets, build up a competitive advantage, and diversify as the global shipbuilding industry enters a period of decline.
Horizon Shipbuilding in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, is primarily a builder of inland towboats of 70 to 140 feet. It has proved a nimble competitor over the years, winning Alabama Exporter of the Year in 2010 as it beat the recession with new orders from overseas, and has recently gained attention for its in-house, custom project management software.
The software, which the company calls Gordhead, allows users to view each project's progress in real time, and integrates all communications from the company's team into one visible location. The latest engineering documents are uploaded to it so that welders and pipefitters have the right version on hand. Delayed elements are highlighted in red for all to see. Task manhours are calculated and tracked automatically. And, notably, yard profitability on each newbuild updates instantly and is visible to all – including employees and even clients, who have full access to the system from top to bottom.
The database helps win Horizon new orders because its detailed cost tracking on previous projects allows for precise bidding. But the company says that an even bigger selling point is that with Gordhead, Horizon's customers know that they will have full transparency on a towboat's construction progress and delivery date.
For most firms, the software would remain a proprietary tool. Horizon says that it wants to sell it to other yards, on the idea that the success of the industry as a whole is as important as its own. It has set up a separate website for marketing the system and invites all inquiries.
On the Texas Gulf Coast, Bludworth Marine has made its way through decades of market cycles by making careful investments, always with an eye to matching shipyard overhead with demand. Owner Richard Bludworth, descended from generations of shipbuilders in Texas, has incrementally expanded the company from a single facility to the current four yards.
Bludworth Marine is primarily in the business of repair, with tug and barge dry dock facilities in Galveston and Orange, Texas, but they have also been major players in the U.S. articulated tug and barge (ATB) market for over forty years. Bludworth has marketed its own line of ATB connectors since the 1970s, and also holds the American distributorship of Taisei Engineering's ATB systems, which have been installed on more tugs worldwide than all other ATB connectors combined.
To diversify, Bludworth and Taisei are now exploring the design of a connector system for LNG barges, opening up the potential for a new market as LNG transport and bunkering come to American waterways.
Louisiana's Metal Shark is a manufacturer of small aluminum craft for law enforcement and defense operators. It has its origins in the Gravois family's boatbuilding yard for commercial fishermen and anglers; they formed Metal Shark in 2005 to pursue government clients. Metal Shark is now the leading small craft builder for the U.S. Coast Guard and competes for business from the other service branches. State and local agencies and private operators also place custom orders.
With the budget sequester squeezing domestic defense spending, the company has moved into overseas markets. Metal Shark has recently made headlines for Foreign Military Assistance sales to Vietnam as part of the effort to build up allied capacity in the South China Sea.
There is a great “need for vessels for . . . patrol with the crisis in the South China Sea at the moment – the Vietnamese just had one of their Coast Guard boats rammed by a Chinese vessel,” said Metal Shark VP Greg Lambrecht.
Metal Shark is also looking to expand into the space occupied by larger defense-oriented shipbuilders like Bollinger. With its acquisition of rights to build a full line of Damen designs, including the 165-foot steel-hulled Defiant class of offshore patrol vessels, Metal Shark will be able to compete for ever-larger contracts at home and abroad.