THE Sembawang group will invest US$50 million in expanding and upgrading its yard facilities to sharpen its competitiveness in shipbuilding, repair and rig building. The funds will go into building a 700-metre pier to accommodate three additional VLCCs (very large crude carriers), berthing facilities along Sungei Sembawang in Malaysia to take up to eight 180-metre vessels, as well as its corporate headquarters. This investment represents the second half of a $100 million plan to equip Sembawang Shipyard, Sembawang Bethlehem (Sembeth) and Sembawang Engineering for growth in the next decade. The first phase started last year after Sembawang Shipyard successfully placed out 27 million new shares to raise $216 million. Mr Tan Mong-seng, managing director of Sembawang Shipyard, said the expansion and upgrading was a strategic move. ''In this business, you must always look one or two years down the road since any such plans have a gestation period of between 12 and 18 months,'' he said. ''We want to be ready for the next boom. It will come, it's only a matter of time. But if you don't prepare, then you can't ride the wave when the market comes back.'' Sembawang, with other local shipyards, has been hit by a soft ship repair market as a result of weak freight rates, especially for tankers, in the past two years. With income barely able to meet operating costs, vessel owners are either delaying the docking of their ships or simply sticking to the most essential repairs. The soft repair market is expected to continue this year. ''But the ship repair and conversion market will be very strong from 1994,'' Mr Tan said, citing many factors, including the growing environmental concern for tankers' operational safety and the generally ageing world fleet. To meet the turnaround, the Sembawang group is also beefing up Sembeth's capabilities.