WEST Australian shipbuilder Austal Ships is to embark on a major expansion to upgrade its shipyard facilities to meet rapidly rising demand for fast ferries, especially from China. Austal chairman John Rothwell said the additional facilities, which were to adjoin its yard at Jervoise Bay near Perth, would give Austal the capacity to build another two 50-metre vessels and two 100-metre vessels. ''Our current facilities only enable us to build four 50-metre vessels at any one time,'' he said, adding that Austal built eight vessels for the China market last year. Austal has a second inland yard, about 500 metres from the first yard. Employment at the two yards, which stood at 220 people, would increase to 450 after the expansion, Mr Rothwell said. Since opening in 1988, the shipbuilder has established a reputation as a designer and builder of high-speed aluminium craft. It exported close to US$40 million worth of vessels to China last year. Mr Rothwell said Austal this month would deliver two catamarans - the Nan Xing and Hai Chang - to Yuet Hing Marine Supplies in Hongkong, which was acting on behalf of Chinese owners. He said the two vessels, which have been tailor-made to the owners requirements, were presently undergoing sea trials. Austal had recently signed its 15th contract with China to supply another fast ferry and Yuet Hing representatives were in Australia last week to discuss further orders. Austal - which has the capability to build a wide range of vessels, from the super-luxury to ordinary passenger ferries - had learned how to do business with the Chinese, Mr Rothwell said. The company, he said, had an edge over its competitors in that others could provide only limited choice of style of vessels. Mr Rothwell said: ''In general, we believe this year once again we will be building eight or more vessels for the China market and see no reason why it should not continue in the future like this.'' Chinese buyers, he said, were searching for high-speed passenger vessels at reasonable prices, and Austal's air-cushion catamarans fitted their needs. The catamarans were capable of speeds of up to 40 knots with full passenger loads. Austal also was building catamarans fitted with gas turbine engines, Mr Rothwell said. Traditionally, the majority of the vessels built by Austal were used in the Pearl River Delta area, but new vessels being built would be used in open-sea conditions, he said. The craft for open-sea routes would be fitted with sophisticated ride-control systems which would cut down on seasickness among passengers, Mr Rothwell said, adding that Austal was aware of the importance of the quality of ride in the vessels. Mr Rothwell said Austal used computer-aided design and cutting systems in its work. ''With this new cutter, we can complete cutting an aluminium plate for a 40-metre vessel in two weeks, reducing cutting time by about 25 per cent on what it is today,'' he said, adding that it also improved the accuracy of the shipyard. The company was able to produce better vessels at cheaper prices due to its efficiency and high productivity.