Lloyd's List
March 3, 2009 Tuesday

Vietnam's shipyards: survivingthe global downturn;
Reducing production delays and ensuring quality are seen as key

VIETNAMESE shipbuilding has attracted a lot of attention over the last few years for taking advantage of the tight capacity in major shipbuilding nations and breaking into the international export market.

But as the global downturn takes hold there are now questions being raised over how sustainable the industry's growth really is.

Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group said recently that it expects to export $1bn worth of ships this year, up from $700m last year.

The Vietnamese government has also taken a keen interest in developing the nation's shipbuilding industry.

In a very short space of time state-owned Vinashin has gone from building small bulkers and general cargoships to supramax bulkers, car carriers and more. According to company statements, its rapid rise up the technological ladder has recently taken another significant step with its first Floating Storage Offshore unit now under construction and the first in a series of four aframax tankers on the way.

Such projects for the local market sound very impressive, but beyond such pronouncements, getting a real picture of what is actually happening at Vietnam's shipyards is rather harder to ascertain.

Third parties involved in Vietnamese shipbuilding suggest a less rosy picture of delayed construction schedules, lack of skilled personnel and design capabilities and low productivity.

As the global shipbuilding market hits a major slowdown with orders having almost totally dried up, cancellation and delay are the watchwords of the day. So where does this leave the Vietnamese shipbuilding industry?

Vietnam essentially broke into the international shipbuilding arena by building vessels that established yards were not interested in constructing, and competing on price.

But it is questionable if price will be enough to sustain Vietnam's shipbuilding industry in the longer term. Reducing production delays and ensuring quality are generally seen as key factors by industry executives going forward.

One class society official told Lloyd's List that nearly all vessels built in Vietnam experienced production delays and these could range from a few months to much longer.

Much like yards in other countries, industry sources suggest that Vinashin is facing pressure from owners, both international and domestic, to delay deliveries and cancel orders.

An accurate picture is hard to get but it would appear that the shipbuilding group has had both options and some firm orders cancelled, as well as agreeing to delay deliveries.

Despite this, Vinashin has been pushing ahead with a move into large tanker construction for the domestic market.

ABS is involved in two of Vietnam's largest ever projects for the construction of a 150,000 dwt FSO for PetroVietnam at Nam Trieu shipyard and an aframax tanker at Dung Quat shipyard.

In a challenging combination, the Nam Trieu yard is both building the vessel and constructing the yard at the same time. The hull was recently launched from a slipway as the yard lacks a suitable drydock.

"I think they are doing well actually, since they do not have a graving dock," said an executive for ABS in Vietnam.

At Dung Quat the state-run shipbuilder is working on its first aframax tanker, where work is described as going at a "slow and steady" pace.

Domestic orders form part of a drive by the government to ensure that all developments related to shipping in the national oil industry are produced locally as far as is possible.

The question is whether international owners be willing to take the plunge with large tankers at Vinashin. The progress of the first aframaxes will be watched closely by some.

The first vessel is not compliant with the common structural rules but the latter three will be.

"I think there will be someone willing to take long construction time against price," the ABS executive said.

It is worth noting that when the first owners took the plunge with similar vessels in South Korea and China it triggered their long term growth as major shipbuilding powers.

Given the current state of the shipping market it will now be much tougher for Vinashin to make the leap into this sector, with global newbuilding orders having pretty much dried up over the last few months.

The move to try to build ever larger vessels is questioned by some, who believe that Vietnam's shipbuilders would be better served by diversifying into niche markets and concentrate on the quality of its vessels and production processes.

"It's not always about larger vessels, it's about how complex they are," said Drewry Maritime Services senior consultant Mohit Batra.

He recommended developing capabilities in a wide range of sectors including the offshore sector, which is seen as rebounding sooner than many others.

The issue of Vietnam's lack of design capabilities was brought up by a number of different officials.

"Design here is not so good," said for Class NK Vietnam general manager Yoshiaki Ogahara.

He said that only a few vessels had been designed in Vietnam and those were largely basic general cargoships.

The issue, one official noted, was that using a design office in Poland or Korea meant that changes were difficult to make during the production in Vietnam, unlike shipbuilding in Korea itself, where changes could be done on site. Even when Vietnamese yards ask for changes to be made, they are not high on the priority list.

With Vietnam having essentially rushed headlong into expansion of shipbuilding, the next couple of years are seen by some as a chance to take stock and plan for the future.

"This type of crisis is a good chance for Vietnam to reorganise," said a Germanischer Lloyd executive.

Less in the way of new orders would allow Vinahsin to concentrate on issues such as production scheduling and quality.

"If they can deliver ships of quality and on time it will get some credibility in the international market," Capt Batra said.

While Vietnam has focused on shipbuilding over the last few years, the country is seen as having good potential in the area of shiprepair.

At present it has one major international shiprepair yard in the shape of Hyundai Mipo Dockyard joint venture Hyundai-Vinashin.

This yard had been moving over to mainly newbuilding work, but with the slump in global markets it is understood to be refocusing its business on repair once more.

"This country needs more repair yards and repair capacity," said Mr Ogahara.

He noted that Vietnam was close to the main sea route in the South China Sea, meaning ships required little in the way of deviation, making it an attractive location for shiprepair much as Singapore is.