30, 40 or 50 years ago it was common in the shipbuilding industry for very large shipyards to develop CAD/CAM technology completely in house, or in conjunction with a technology partner. A prime example is SPADES (for Ship Production and Design Engineering System) that was developed at Avondale Shipyard in the 60’s and 70’s, but numerous other examples exist. Even when SSI first started working with Avondale in 2002-03 many comparisons and references were back to SPADES.
However, over time a shift happened and it became more and more common for shipbuilders to buy large, monolithic CAD/CAM solutions from a range of software vendors and extensively customize them. Even today we constantly engage with shipbuilders who feel stuck on their current software because of the extensive customization and integration they felt was required to turn those systems into what was needed. The direct cost of this customization can be many times greater than the purchase and implementation of the software. What some shipyards are finding is that the hidden costs are far greater when it comes time to adopt newer versions of the chosen software or solutions from other vendors.
Today, there are a number of shipbuilding specific software packages from a range of vendors. These solutions all have capabilities that didn’t exist in shipbuilding software even 5 or 10 years ago. Some of these software packages, like ShipConstructor, are flexible enough to be configured to better meet the needs of each shipyard. We’re hearing the same message from our clients, driven by the painful experiences of the past, over and over again: “don’t let us change the software for us, help us adapt to the software.” And generally speaking that’s what we do.
ShipConstructor is perhaps the most flexible, and with a foundation of AutoCAD, and other Autodesk products, and Microsoft SQL Server it is also the most representative of a true COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) solution. Many clients pick up the software and are successfully using it the way it was delivered. It’s fairly simple to configure ShipConstructor to the requirements of the shipyard without resorting to any custom development.
However the simple truth is that there IS a cost to taking COTS solutions and using them exactly as they are delivered with little or no customization. To assume anything less would be akin to saying that any given shipyard is the same as the one down the street. Generally speaking shipbuilding is shipbuilding, but in an industry with fairly low margins the details are what make one shipyard successful over another.
At a recent conference in Brazil co-sponsored by Sincronia (our partner for Brazil), we heard a presentation by Estaleiro Atlantico Sul where they had customized ShipConstructor to add QR codes automatically to drawings as they were generated in the software. These QR codes were scanned in the shipyard using an application on a smartphone. The application communicated with EAS’s engineering data management solution to ensure that a paper drawing being used was the latest approved revision. The value of this customization was clear to the shipyard, and overall was a clear gain in productivity. However equally clear is that EAS had now introduced a cost/barrier, no matter how small, to implementing new versions of ShipConstructor.
So let’s review so far: developing software entirely within the shipyard is impractical, heavy customization of existing software has a cost that is just too high, and using COTS software as delivered (no matter how flexible it is) just doesn’t provide software that sufficiently fits the nuances of each shipyard. The answer is something a bit more than COTS; something I’ve playfully called COTS Plus in the title of this post. But how far is too far?
Here’s the unfortunate bit: If there was only one answer, and I had it nicely wrapped up and placed on a platter we wouldn’t have needed all of the preamble above. Some customization, and heavy configuration can make sense. The way that each customization is implemented can and will have a significant impact on its portability and maintainability to new versions of the chosen software (or other software). The best place to look for help in making an assessment of the cost of any implementation is the creator of the software you are working with. The software in use in the shipbuilding industry is becoming closer and closer to something that works as delivered for everyone. However in the age of COTS software, for the shipbuilding industry a relationship with the maker of that software is as important as ever.