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Ready to embark: Digitalisation and technology hit shipbuilding

Opinion: Industry 4.0 undoubtedly transformed manufacturing organisations across the globe but stopped short of impacting military and commercial shipbuilders, along with naval organisations due to the complexity of military and commercial manufacturing processes. But digital shipyards are on the move using “Maritime 4.0” transformative technologies writes Matt Medley, industry director, A&D manufacturing at IFS.

Opinion: Industry 4.0 undoubtedly transformed manufacturing organisations across the globe but stopped short of impacting military and commercial shipbuilders, along with naval organisations due to the complexity of military and commercial manufacturing processes. But digital shipyards are on the move using “Maritime 4.0” transformative technologies writes Matt Medley, industry director, A&D manufacturing at IFS.

Industry director, A&D manufacturing at IFS, Matt Medley highlights an increase in digital shipyards for both military and commercial shipbuilding and emphasises the importance of an integrated data environment to support a construction ecosystem and digitised manufacturing processes. 


Maritime 4.0 is now a key strategy for shipbuilders and naval organisations

Many manufacturing processes, equipment and products have been dramatically improved due to the impact of Industry 4.0 and its supporting technologies. But up to now, its impact on the aerospace and defence industry has been limited to the creation and assembly of items by components used to manufacture highly complex military platforms such as aircraft. 

But when it comes to shipbuilding, new technologies can also mitigate complexity of manufacturing processes – AI, digital twins, 3D printing and much more. Shipbuilding is changing and becoming more digitised than ever before, enter “Maritime 4.0”.

Shipbuilding is preparing to join the digital stage  

The Australian Industrial Transformation Institute explains just how important it is to acknowledge how transformative the establishments of “digital shipyards” and “Maritime 4.0” are and how challenging it will be. The benefits, it details, are extensive in terms of productivity, efficiency, reliability, quality and safety over the lifecycle of vessels. The maritime industry is listening. Research and Markets data sees the digital shipbuilding sector poised for explosive growth– from $591 million in 2019 to $2.7 billion by 2027, with an impressive 21.1 per cent compound annual growth rate.


So, what opportunities can Maritime 4.0 bring to the industry? 

To better understand the impact of digital shipbuilding, Procedia Manufacturing Industry Journal produced a descriptive approach distinguishing the possibilities of Maritime 4.0, including:

  • The automated integration of real data into decision-making;
  • The adoption and implementation of connected technologies for design, production and operation;
  • Reduction of vessel environmental impact, related to production, operation, disposal (including emissions, underwater noise and material utilisation);
  • Affordable and sustainable operation; and
  • Reduction of risk, increasing safety and security.

Every step matters and shipbuilding industry must prioritise digital development – it’s important to remember that the beginning of a ship’s lifecycle starts with the design process and manufacturing, not when it is launched to sea. The success or failure of Maritime 4.0 implementations depends on addressing four critical areas. First, implementations must cope with a breadth and depth of complexity that Industry 4.0 never encountered. As a result of that, technology implementation must not be piecemeal but part of a much wider integrated environment. Third, all implementations must establish the highest possible security within this digital thread, and finally, no implementation can ignore the need to build in sustainability.

  1. Intricacy and differences in shipbuilding – unmatched in complexity

The process of manufacturing a ship or submarine can have a wide-ranging scale which follows a different kind of process management compared to other military equipment. Consider the latest aircraft carriers currently in-service and under construction such as the US Navy Gerald R. Ford Class. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) features a 78-metre-wide flight deck equipped with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system and advanced arresting gear. The carrier has the capacity to carry more than 75 aircraft and can accommodate 4,539 personnel.

Manufacturing such a complex, state-of-the-art asset requires supporting systems to effectively manage a full-scale construction project. Even commercial shipbuilding, though often less complex in design, comes with its own set of complexities  stringent import/export rules that vary widely by country, new requirements for infectious disease control, and high labour costs, just to name a few. Global competition is fierce and dominated by low-cost labour countries: More than 90 per cent of global shipbuilding takes place in just three countries  China, South Korea and Japan. 

Manufacturing processes with supporting assets 

Industry-specific supporting systems are a necessity to successfully manage such unique and complex building processes. Taking years to complete the construction projects means each one must be under strict control and oversight and managed closely from a time and cost-perspective. It means controlling supply chain processes to optimise scarce resources and parts that are delivered from multiple tier two and three manufacturers around the world. It means asset management functionality that can manage maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) throughout the lifecycle of a vessel for those shipbuilders who continue to support asset management after initial construction and deployment. 

  1. Driven by technological transformations and digital solutions 

Digital technologies such as machine learning, digital twins, 3D or AI will play a significant role in the digital shipyard. To fully realise the potential, digital transformation is required and Maritime 4.0 is high on the agenda, as major naval forces have been already taking steps to digitise in recent years. In 2017, the UK Royal Navy announced project NELSON, specifically designed to deliver digital transformation across the service. Likewise, the US Navy has made great strides with its Naval Operational Business Logistics Enterprise (NOBLE) project. The program will eliminate over 700 database/application servers and consolidate over 23 currently isolated application systems – ultimately aiming to improve asset readiness both on a shore and material basis.

IDE ensuring complex software applications provide seamless operations 

Implementation of a full integrated data environment (IDE) is an action every shipbuilder should undertake to successfully remain competitive in a digitising sector. This allows a supply chain involving working closely with military organisations, industry players and software providers. It’s clear that a fully digital shipyard needs to be underpinned by a software system that’s agile enough to act on the increasing data volume and complexity to deliver quantifiable operational benefits. For instance, submarine and warship builder ASC, Australia’s largest defence prime contractor, recently announced a company-wide digital transformation program. This comprehensive program will set the ground for the ASC transition to becoming a digital shipyard – facilitating more streamlined processes, enhanced integration between systems, and the expanded use of real-time data to drive optimised decision-making across the organisation.

  1. Stronger security for an enhanced digital thread  

To be able to respond accordingly and flexibly to new threats, organisations cannot afford to compromise on compliance and security. US Navy force structure and shipbuilding plans confirm that cyber security will play a huge role in shipbuilding as it does in any other industry stating: 

“The digital thread from manned ships and autonomous platforms provides enormous opportunities for efficiencies in coordination, operation, maintenance, and cyber-resilience. However, this thread of critical data, including location, heading, and platform health, presents one of the biggest opportunities for cyber threats and cyber attacks to Navy vessels. End-to-end cyber security and anti-tamper technology need to be addressed for a wide range of systems, from small man-portable autonomous vessels to systems as large as carrier groups.

 Cyber security under the defence standards  

Shipbuilders’ industry servicing military organisations must carefully assess cyber security. They will have to adjust and ensure compliance with all regulations driven by the heightened security requirements of the defence sector. Regulatory-compliant software can be a key differentiator when bidding for ship manufacturing contracts. To this end, enterprise software should be a strategic enabler for information assurance and cyber security. It should be designed from the ground up with security in mind, and address risks and threats throughout all phases of the software development lifecycle. 

  1. Shipbuilding on a sustainable course

As military forces are looking at greener operations for newly built ships and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been spearheading an industry-wide effort to accelerate a major fuel and technology transition in response to climate challenges, it’s a focus for Maritime 4.0 to also positively impact sustainability. 

The UK Royal Navy has recently implemented a catalytic reduction system in two of its newest warships that reduces emissions of nitrogen oxide by up to 97 per cent.

One recent academic paper from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design at Cadiz University highlighted 12 key Industry 4.0 technologies as most impactful to make the shipbuilding supply chain more sustainable – including additive manufacturing, big data analytics, augmented reality, and more. In all of this, supporting enterprise software has an essential role to play in this green maritime future.

Enterprise software roads lead to eco-friendly future  

One thing is certain – the demand for sustainable ships is growing significantly, as countries around the world seek to reduce the impact ships have on the environment. Good supply chain optimisation can help with reducing unnecessary emission during manufacturing processes, with integrated data environment lending a hand. The right software helps with data analysis allowing to assign a sustainability score to every process across a shipbuilding organisation’s value chain. 

Maritime 4.0 – big data for big players 

Maritime 4.0 is gradually stepping into shipyard production and automation. Cyber-physical systems and technological network structures are on the right track for optimising shipbuilding operations. But the success of a Maritime 4.0 shift for both military and commercial shipbuilders involves complexity way beyond traditional manufacturing and construction principles. An integrated data environment is essential to allow military and commercial shipbuilders to capitalise on new projects, operations and support a complex construction ecosystem while realising the benefits of Maritime 4.0. 

Matt Medley is the industry director, A&D manufacturing at IFS.

Ready to embark: Digitalisation and technology hit shipbuilding
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