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July 21, 2015

What would you say is the biggest challenge in the shipbuilding industry? I have asked quite a few people this exact question and have heard some very interesting answers; however, they all do seem to stem from the same feeling: Shipbuilding is traditional. I am pretty sure anyone in the shipbuilding industry has heard and probably has told others not familiar with the shipbuilding industry that it is very traditional. I would like to share what I think is one of the biggest challenges in shipbuilding and yes…it does have a basis in tradition.

a gif of a visual representation of the design, build, and maintain phases in shipbuilding.

Digital Shipbuilding

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Start at the Beginning

To answer this question I simply looked for the root cause of where many of the challenges unique to the shipbuilding industry start. The source of the problem is the requirements and expectations of the deliverables between the owner and the shipyard. In a typical ship construction project there are several deliverables (also called milestones) the yard needs to meet and that payments are associated with. This is to allow the owner to see tangible evidence that their project is progressing and the shipyard to get the cash to start on the next milestone.

The issue is that one of the first key milestones “laying the keel,” focuses on cutting steel rather than creating a digital ship model.

Laying the keel, or laying down is the formal recognition of the start of a ship’s construction. It is often marked with a ceremony attended by dignitaries from the shipbuilding company and the ultimate owners of the ship.  


Having keel-laying as the first major milestone rather than completing a significant portion of the design is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge in shipbuilding today.

The laying the keel milestone has been traditionally focused on exactly that…laying the keel or completion of a major block. In this milestone there is little to no emphasis on the digital design of the ship which is why many yards do not concentrate on it.  Often, all sorts of shortcuts are taken leading to a significant amount of hot work and rework throughout the construction of the ship.

An Improved Strategy

A better approach would be to put value on creating the digital model first.

Not doing this is the source of so many problems. The lack of appreciation of the digital model during the first milestone exacerbates the challenges we face throughout the entire lifecycle of the project. It causes us to design, procure and build the ship at the same time for virtually the entire lifecycle. That is so inefficient and is one of the key differences and one of the major challenges that shipbuilding has compared to other manufacturing industries. It amazes many people, and myself, that we start building a ship before 30% of the entire ship is even properly designed.

If there was more understanding and appreciation of the benefits of a complete digital ship model, owners and shipyards would be able to put more emphasis on the digital model for the first milestone. To be clear I am not saying the entire ship needs to be detailed designed but enough so that we can avoid downstream inefficiencies. Having a more complete virtual model of the ship would allow the owner and yards to better understand the product they were building and make changes to the ship much earlier when the cost is much lower. With better visibility of what is going to be built the ship would be built faster, cost much less and better match clients’ requirements.

Closing Remarks

One of the biggest issues that the shipbuilding industry faces is the value, or lack thereof, placed on the digital model prior to construction. This is largely due to the tradition that the first major milestone payment is tied to laying the keel or cutting steel.

Having cutting steel focused milestones worsen the challenges we face:

  • Major changes to ship components/design are more time consuming and costly
  • Increases complexity of concurrent engineering
  • Increases the risk of making the “right” decision very early in the project
  • Purchasing items before we know what we will need due to equipment/material lead times
  • Reduces the manufacturability quality and efficiency
  • Increases errors on the waterfront because of incomplete designs and proper documentation
  • Leads to more hot work on the production floor, reducing streamlined manufacturing
  • Increases the amount of rework

If we change just what is expected from the first few milestones by concentrating on a more complete (does not need to be 100% complete) digital model, the challenges we face can be noticeably reduced. This will have a benefit for the owner and the shipyard since they will get a better quality ship, receive it earlier and cost less compared to the current strategy.

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