By Keith Norbury

Designing ships for most of history was a two-dimensional exercise, namely drawings drafted on paper. In the last two decades, advances in computer power and software have moved ship design into the world of simulated three dimensions.

Nowadays most of the world’s shipyards of any size use 3D modeling and have for years, said Darren Larkins, CEO of ShipConstructor Software Inc., which has a client list of 350 shipyards across the globe.

Among the recent ships designed with ShipConstructor are a Suezmax cargo vessel for a Brazilian shipyard, and a mammoth amphibious combat vessel that resembles an aircraft carrier, but technically isn’t, for the U.S. military.

Consider that before computers enabled 3D ship modeling, “the development of fairing and lofting design, which captures the complex shapes of ship hulls, was an arduous and manual task involving actual models from which an almost infinite number of unique measurements could be taken manually,” notes a backgrounder on the history of ShipConstructor.

Steve Ivison, ShipConstructor’s consulting services manager, knows those days well. In his four-decades career shipbuilding, he has worked in 13 shipyards in six countries. He started in 1970 in Liverpool, just as the first electronic calculators came on the market. A few years later, when he first used a handheld calculator in his work, he used to verify the results with a slide rule “because I couldn’t trust the calculator,” he said.

Today, Mr. Ivison puts his experience to work beta testing new software tools and versions of ShipConstructor in collaboration with the company’s customers.

“Somebody phrased it really nice when he said my job here is to represent the shipyards and make sure that the product that we’re outputting is in the right direction, is going to be user-friendly, and is exactly what they want, even if it’s not the way that I would do it,” Mr. Ivison said.

From mainframes to PCs, 3D modelling evolves

Three decades ago, computer modeling was possible only on large mainframe computers, and was too costly for all but the largest shipyards. In the late 1980s, however, German emigre Rolf Oetter, who was earning a master’s degree at the University of Victoria, noticed the business potential for such a project and with three partners launched Albacore Research Ltd., the forerunner to ShipConstructor Software Inc. In the early days, Mr. Oetter ran the business out the basement of his home in the Victoria suburb of Saanich. Today the company employs almost 60 people, most of whom are working in a Saanich office building, and competes on the world stage with larger 3D ship modeling firms like U.K.-based Aveva Marine and Sener Ingenería y Sistemas S.A. of Spain.

The goal of 3D ship modeling software isn’t just to produce models, said Mr. Larkin, who joined ShipConstructor while still a student at UVic in 1999, when the company was still operating from Mr. Oetter’s basement. “The primary purpose is to enable efficient production of ships,” Mr. Larkins said.

Classification society sets 3D rules

Germanischer Lloyd, a shipbuilding classification society based in Hamburg, Germany, not only assesses shipbuilding software, it also develops its own software for 3D ship modelling. For example, Germanisher Lloyd’s Poseidon System enables its customers and engineers to perform “rules analysis” to check that construction is in accordance with the classification society’s rules, said Dr. Christian Cabos, Vice-President of Information Management and Tools at GL Classification, the company’s research and rule development department. The Poseidon system performs root calculations, which is a common field for the classification societies, the most familiar of which are Lloyd’s Registry and the American Bureau of Shipping. These root calculations ensure that design and construction take place according to rule sets established by the classification society. Usually this checking occurs in early phases of design or construction. Approval engineers can also use it after they receive the drawings from the shipyard “to check whether everything is OK concerning the construction of that vessel,” Dr. Cabos said.

The company has also developed a commercial product, GL Hullmanager, which stores information about inspection and maintenance of hull structures “and connects that with 3D models of the vessel that we provide to them,” Dr. Cabos said.

B.C. shipyard adopts 3D technologies

Among the recent adopters of Hullmanager is Vancouver-based Seaspan, Dr. Cabos said. “We are very proud of that because they had a very good system already, which they built up for themselves to do these kind of hull maintenance things,” he said. Seaspan is also using ShipConstructor software in detailed design of non-combat vessels it will be building as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. Calls to Seaspan’s Vice-President of Program Management, John Shaw, were not returned by press time.

The basics of ShipConstructor, which is built on the Autocad platform, can be learned quickly by anyone familiar with Autocad, said Mr. Larkins. Becoming a master takes experience, however. “It’s like Photoshop,” he said. “You can learn it fairly fast, but knowing what the right things are to get a three-page spread print layout that looks good and will attract the right reader … that’s not a question of how to use Photoshop, but about how to be a graphics designer,” Mr. Larkins said.

Shift to scientific analysis from historical experience

The use of 3D modeling enables ship design to evolve from using rules based on historical experience, namely whether certain practices succeeded or failed, to a system based on scientific analysis of the construction, Dr. Cabos pointed out.

“As you can imagine, if you base your construction on experience, then you will try not to move too far from the previous construction (methods) because this is risky – unless you are doing a very detailed analysis that can prove computationally that this will be OK,” Dr. Cabos said.

Many shipyards, though, especially smaller yards or those in the developing world, have only adopted rudimentary 3D technology. In fact, Autocad by itself is still the most widely used 3D program for ship modeling, Mr. Larkins said. “One of the challenges in the shipbuilding industry is that it tends to follow where the cheapest labour is,” Mr. Larkins said. That makes it difficult to argue the benefits of spending thousands of dollars on cost-effective 3D technologies where salaries for shipyard workers are only a few hundred dollars a month. That’s why in recent years South Korea and now China have surpassed Japan as the top ship building nation. “Shipbuilding is such a labour-intensive business,” Mr. Larkins said. “You have an engineering department of 30 people servicing a labour force of 5,000 actually doing the manual labor putting the ship together.”

Even in the developed world, few shipyards are using 3D modeling to its fullest potential, Mr. Larkins said. Most of the design are now taking place in 3D. However, old-fashioned drawings, which are generated from the software, remain the norm on the shop floor for all but the most sophisticated yards. “A welder looks at a piece of paper,” said Mark Waldie, ShipConstructor’s public relations coordinator. “He doesn’t have a gigantic computer screen right now.” Dr. Cabos noted that 2D drawings also remain the norm in the basic steel construction phase of a vessel. However, he predicted that will change in the future. Among companies on that vanguard is Netherlands-based Royal Huisman Yachts, which has 3D virtual reality terminals on the shop floor, Mr. Larkins said. “But that’s also a shipyard that has an escalator in it,” he said. “Not a typical shipyard.”

Detailed design the forte of ShipConstructor

ShipConstructor is used to perform detailed ship design, such as where to penetrate bulkheads to thread piping in order to follow the class society rules and ensure engineering integrity. Initial engineering, such as the hull form, is created with software from other vendors such as Helsinki-based Napa Group, or Vancouver-based Autoship Systems Corporation. “They create a general hull form and do some conceptual arrangement of the very big stuff that’s going to be inside because those affect the actual centre of gravity and the weight of the ship and so on,” Mr. Larkins said. That information is run through engineering analysis programs to determine how the hull will function under varying conditions such as the number and size of its engines and their placement. It will also calculate the drag on the hull form and its effect on fuel consumption, for example. “All of those calculations are done up front. But then they take that hull form directly into our software,” Mr. Larkins said. “We have workflows that take it from pretty much any other software out there.”

But that’s only the surface model. Three-dimensional design also involves determining the size, thickness and curvature of the steel plate used to build the ship, a process called nesting. It’s an exercise Mr. Larkins likens to pattern used to cut out the parts to make a shirt, except it’s not as easy to curve steel as it is to shape cloth. “A big thing about shipbuilding is that there’s so many different parts and they’re not done in a linear fashion. They’re done in a concurrent fashion,” Mr. Waldie said. Dozens of people, from engineers to draftsman, will work on different parts of the design simultaneously. To facilitate that, the software is connected to a single marine information model, MIM, which Mr. Larkins noted is a takeoff on Building Information Modeling, or BIM, which has become the de facto standard in building construction. “From a modeling perspective, you have different departments doing different parts … and they need to not step on each other’s toes and respond to each other’s changes,” Mr. Larkins said. “But people are actually putting out construction documentation for these things. The model is not the end goal.”

U.S. Coast Guard buys Canadian, but Nova Scotia shipyard doesn’t

The Canadian-made ship-design software has so impressed the U.S. Coast Guard that it requires 3D designs for eleven new offshore patrol cutters to be compatible with ShipConstructor, according to a Dec. 4 news release linked to the U.S. Coast Guard website. ShipConstructor is also being used to design up to seven non-combat vessels that Seaspan is building for the Canadian Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. The ships include an icebreaker, three fisheries vessels, two joint support ships, and an oceanographic vessel. ShipConstructor, however, will not be designing ships for the much larger NSPS contracts awarded to Irving Shipbuilding Inc. to construct combat vessels. That’s because Irving outsourced the engineering for those ships to a Danish firm, Odense Maritime Technology, Irving confirmed in a March 7 news release.

Mr. Larkins described that as “a double whammy against the Canadian taxpayer” because not only will the engineering work not be Canadian, “the software they’re going to use isn’t going to be Canadian either.” Irving Shipbuilding didn’t respond to a request for comment.

New training centre readies for 3D revolution

In B.C., however, shipyard workers should soon be able to learn how to use ShipConstructor at the recently established Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre (IMTARC) in Esquimalt near Victoria. “When I was in Ottawa at a technical symposium a number of weeks ago, everybody was talking about their software,” said Alex Rueben, IMTARC’s Executive Director. “So it really is ubiquitous throughout the industry.”

In establishing IMTARC, Mr. Rueben wanted to ensure that its computer facility caters to the needs of the shipbuilding industry. He knew about basic office software such as Microsoft Office and Adobe design software. “But I also wanted to know what the high end looks like. And then when I heard Ship Constructor Software was now working with Seaspan in terms of developing the 3D modeling for ship construction, I thought, I’ve got to get to know who these guys are,” Mr. Rueben said.

ShipConstructor offered its software for free to IMTARC so long as it is used in teaching. Before he can start training on ShipConstructor, however, Mr. Rueben will need to obtain Autocad licences. “When I get to that stage I’m hoping that maybe with some additional corporate funding, I’ll be able to do that,” Mr. Rueben said. “But ShipConstructor Software is standing by to assist me with that.”