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business models, strategies and technologies

Waxing philosophical about workboats – maritime mindshifts and manufacturing rethinks

Shipbuilding can be a bellwether for manufacturing mindsets – from traditionalism to disruptive innovation

A long time ago, some of my earliest copywriting and idea development work was for many of the industrial shipyards in Denmark. Hopefully, it wasn’t my fault that many of them subsequently went out of business, as they got squeezed and out-competed by lower-cost, larger-scale yards elsewhere – mostly in Asia.

In my youthful innocence, I was an inadvertent sidelines witness to one of the first high-profile waves of industrial disruption, in which a stalwart bastion of old-school manufacturing got seriously kyboshed by a killer set of changed circumstances.

From heavy metal to specialist capabilities

Traditionally, large-scale industrial shipbuilding had been and has been a heavy-metal world of big-better-best, of iron, steel, cranes, welding and manually operated machinery, of hard work, tough men and trade union bargaining power, often dominated by the first-mover industrial nations.

Then came a massive geographical and manufacturing shift, with big-money shipbuilding redirecting its focus to countries where labour costs were much lower and trade union restrictions notably less (and/or subsidies much higher). Cheap/cheaper, often-Asian and Chinese manufacturing and global logistics completely altered the patterns of world production, commerce and consumption. Competition got global, and markets were commercial targets rather than semi-protected national domains. Mechanisation and the mega-disruptive biggie of containerisation quickly decoupled vessel size and cargo volume from manpower requirements, and was followed by the vastly increased capabilities of technical equipment as well as big inroads by varying degrees of automation.

Ship design and shipbuilding were changing, and the overall topography of an entire industry was in the process of morphing – big time. Yes, this is definitely a massive over-simplification, but sometimes you have to really zoom out to see the overall perspectives.

The price-competitive spectrum

From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until fairly recently, the basic business model for manufacturing and production (in the EU and other “western” countries, at least) has been driven by the benefits of more-or-less free trade, in which almost everything gets purchased wherever it is cheapest. Well, that’s the theory. The price-competitive focus of this business model has long been paralleled and reinforced by the heavyweight move towards globalisation.

As a result, building most kinds of commercial vessels fell somewhere on the spectrum shown above – from now increasingly redundant supertankers and vast container ships currently carrying 23,000+ TEUs to a proliferation of high-tech, built-for-a-particular-purpose specialist vessels, as well as diminutive workboats of many different kinds.

However, this basic production and supply configuration has been seriously affected by the geopolitical and logistical ramifications of the corona pandemic, the war in Ukraine and China’s more aggressive international stance. Such events have revealed major weaknesses in the once-sacred globalisation model – as has the accelerating ESG-related focus on the many planet-lethal hidden costs in the wake of this way of doing business.

Transformative perceptions

However, there now seem to be a lot of new perceptions in the air about what ships/workboats can be and where/how they operate, as well as with regard to societal expectations regarding the balance between impacts and benefits. In the same way that telephones became computers, sextants became GPS satellites and omnipresent software, and ICE vehicles became electric motors and batteries, shipbuilding is currently undergoing another round of radical change. The next generation of disruption impacting the design and construction of commercial vessels – large and small – will probably NOT come from simply continuing with marginal improvements on familiar parameters, and by following traditional, product-centric narratives. Perceptions, mindsets and decision-making frameworks have to change at least as much as the industrial frameworks that once moulded those centuries-old perceptions.

I wanted to take a peek at just some of the many different components of such changing and changed perceptions, because these seem likely to result in yet another significant disruption of the ways companies can design, build and operate ships and workboats – and the kinds of business model such new configurations will be based on. These considerations certainly won’t apply everywhere – much of the shipbuilding industry has supertanker-style difficulties with altering course. And it’s not easy to escape from the limitations of path dependence, in which a practice continues simply because it feels familiar and comfortable. But if innovative approaches involve a radical change of perspectives and basic parameters, such approaches are probably much more commercially significant than mere incremental changes in traditional parameters.

Materials and weight

One of the most visible change areas in modern shipbuilding lies in the use of new kinds of lightweight materials. Many builders tout the use of such materials (examples include aluminium, titanium, alloys and – in particular – composites) as a breakthrough advantage in itself, not least because these dramatically recalibrate the strength/weight relationships involved in structural design. This in turn opens up game-changer design paths and performance capabilities.

When the vessel design for meeting any particular set of performance requirements weighs less, the propulsion equipment required can be correspondingly smaller and lighter. This frees up useful space for revenue-earning, as well as reducing fuel consumption and any resulting environmental footprints.

In terms of new materials and new approaches for reconfiguring the strength/weight balances of structural materials, aviation (for example) is way ahead of mainstream shipbuilding in exploring and implementing a wide range of new materials that are stronger, lighter in weight, more resilient and more cost-effective, and with lower environmental impacts than ever before.

At Airbus, we are exploring the potential of tomorrow’s materials with a focus on sustainability, multi-functionality and digitalisation.

Composites are the obvious game-changer here, but the actual materials used are only part of any possible overall rethink. It’s also important to consider the manufacturing methods involved in using them. Much of the work involved in laying composites is often still done manually, especially in smaller companies and when building smaller vessels that can’t reap the economies of scale that can finance automated processes. Any breakthroughs in materials and their capabilities aren’t in themselves as much of an innovation as they’re often cracked up to be, unless such technical progress can be integrated into serial production and scalability. This is how Bavaria Yachts so successfully upended the world market for leisure craft, for example.

Manufacturers of wind turbine blades as well as major aviation companies like Airbus are some of the relatively few that have introduced the kinds of automated layup procedures essential for scaling up and automating composite-based manufacture. In shipbuilding, the implementation of such composites will probably require similar capabilities in order to streamline and scale up effectively.

Designed value

Another significant rethink of the whole manufacturing and shipbuilding paradigm stems from the “design for manufacturability” software now widely used to design ships and workboats. Such “try before you build” tools drastically reduce the time spent and costs incurred between an idea and any actual cutting metal or laying fibre mats. This in turn ushers in breakthrough realms of design flexibility, as well as greatly reducing time to market.

Various types of software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) development platforms have actually become more important for the production of ships and workboats than any more traditional manufacturing equipment. Simply put, most of the value is created in the software, and the hardware just does what it’s digitally told. Because of this, tools like the renowned Solidworks (now owned by Dassault Systèmes), Onshape, Shapr3D and other CAD/CAM/DFM/CFD tools (and other abbreviation categories, too) become much more of the real value-builder than any actual manufacturing setup – regardless of whether the end products are cast, cut or moulded, or made of steel, aluminium or composites. The remarkably innovative three-brothers plane-building company DarkAero does a good, down-to-earth explainer video for this here.

Combining computer-aided design and advanced materials also enables naval architects, designers and engineers to push design and shape boundaries like never before. When no longer constrained by the limitations of metal, welding and riveting, it’s possible to sculpt hulls, superstructures and internals into hitherto unprecedented shapes and configurations – often featuring hydrodynamically effective curvatures and mould lines that would have been neither conceivable nor possible back in the day.

Try before you build – the digital advantages

Once design and manufacturing have made the full transition to digital, the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back. A whole world of digital “proof-of-concept” configurations, pretotyping, prototyping and design trialling opens up, along with a plethora of opportunities for customer response testing, simulations and feedback loops.

This also means design is decoupled from the harsh, expensive one-way realities of traditional “once it’s done, it’s done” manufacturing. With “try before you build” software tools, the vast majority of testing can be carried out digitally before any building work even starts – rather than after, as per traditional shipbuilding. Any first physical manifestation is probably an umpteenth design iteration, far down the product-evolutionary path.

Such digital systems also have the big advantage of making it possible to create digital replicas and simulations of just about any operating environment and set of performance requirements. Companies like Artemis Technologies – with roots in the Artemis Racing design team for the 35th America’s Cup – have attracted considerable attention with their digital simulators. These were originally built to figure out how best to actually operate the radically new foiling racing boats – and, of course, to massage the marginals with a view to line honours. But the follow-on potential for optimising how commercial workboats are designed and operated unleashes a wealth of commercial potential – with the payoffs disproportionately attractive for workboat designs at the smaller end of the scale.

Simulator at Artemis Technologies

Companies can now alter and try out designs at any stage of completion, along with exploring how virtual workspaces and equipment configurations would work in almost-real-life operating conditions – and can show these as-real prototype setups to potential customers, get their responses and feedback, and collaborate with them on fine-tuning the practicalities of key maritime operating procedures. This dramatically changes the builder-client dynamic.

Digital simulation also means increasing amounts of procedural development, instruction and training can now take place in cost-saving setups ranging from computer desktops to full-immersion operating simulations and multi-operator teaming. In operating either ships or aircraft, digitally based simulation will often drastically cut development and training costs as well as reducing the increasingly prioritised environmental impacts – in addition to often reducing accident rates and insurance premiums.

Similarly, the use of digital twinning can also help workboat operators roll back the costs for maintenance, fault-finding, repair and updating. For almost any kind of commercial vessel, the build price was once the prime focus – but that business model has since changed dramatically, and this is most clearly seen at the small-to-medium end of the workboat scale.

Another key disrupter at play here is that digital design combined with design for manufacturability make it possible for ship/boatbuilders to recalibrate the level of risk they’re willing to take when considering, planning and releasing new designs, products or commercial capabilities. Using digital formats, they can present, canvas and demonstrate potential designs and design tweaks ad libitum, at only limited cost. And there’s the big extra plus that altering the risk profile also sweetens the business case when seeking financing and investment.

New relationships with water

An even more radical rearrangement of the traditional shipbuilding/workboat design and configuration paradigm occurs when vessels acquire a completely new relationship to their natural element – water.

In recent years, some of the most innovative approaches to boat design have stemmed from big-money, ultra-competitive America’s Cup and IMOCA designs that exploit radical foiling solutions to achieve hitherto unprecedented speeds. Foiling is where high-tech movable blades and wing-like structures underneath the boat act to lift the hull out of the water. This significantly reduces drag – often by about 50% compared to a conventional planing boat. And less drag means higher speed for any given energy input. There’s a down-to-earth MainSail explanation of foiling below, and a PlanetSail explanation here (the “meat” starts at 2:39 or so).

Bringing hulls out of the water – their traditional conceptual and engineering focus – paves the way to radically different perceptions about what a ship/boat is and where/how it operates. Foiling (as compared with millennia-old displacement sailing) involves different kinds of forces, shapes, calculations, materials and technologies, with the science being more akin to aviation than shipbuilding. A foiling vessel only requires a few square metres of lifting surface actually in the water, effectively flying above the waves rather than grinding and bashing through them.

When foil designs become the focal point for determining performance, fuel costs and (indirectly) environmental impacts, this results in a radical shift with regard to where and how it pays for designers to focus time, manpower and capabilities with a view to optimisation and efficiency. As a result, the conventional focus on hydrodynamics is currently receiving a massive tech and data transfer from aerodynamics and aeronautical engineering.

Foiling is not really a new technology – for a long time the Pegasus-class hydrofoils were the fastest ships in the U.S. Navy – but in its modern forms is becoming increasingly accepted and vastly refined as a result of exponential increases in computing power and software capabilities, along with the many other technological trickle-down effects from America’s Cup performance queens. As a result, there’s a growing interest in foiling solutions for categories of commercial vessels that include a broad spectrum of workboats, smaller ferries and other specialist craft. Foiling solutions make it possible to specify much smaller, lighter propulsion systems – which in turn use less fuel and have lower operating costs as well as reducing the environmental impacts of workboat operations. Such technologies are easiest to apply at the lower end of the size scale, and they provide benefits that accrue much faster to smaller vessels and workboats than to large cargo carriers and passenger vessels.

Combine foils with an electric motor and – according to Artemis – you then have a vessel that dials down fuel costs by as much as 90% and – even more of a game-changer – is emission-free.

Artemis Technologies’ Pioneer – allegedly the world’s first electric foiling workboat

Propulsion and decarbonisation

New designs using new materials – with composites big among these – help pave the way to structures, assemblies and hulls that are much lighter. When a vessel weighs less, it can then make do with a smaller, less powerful engine (as well as lower specs for all the related ancillaries) to achieve any given performance requirements. Smaller engines also tend to be less thirsty – which is at least one small step towards achieving our society’s decarbonisation targets.

Decarbonisation is currently one of the most problematic and pressing topics in the shipping industry. Owners and operators worldwide are being forced to focus hard on how they are going to reduce CO2 emissions in order to comply with legislation as well as ESG-driven investor scrutiny. For many major companies (in which maritime activities are often only one concern among many), ESG reporting is already directly or indirectly pivotal for their decision-making and societal responsibilities as well as their investment profile. This means they have an urgent, accelerating interest in reducing emissions from marine propulsion systems and in the decarbonisation of fleets across all sectors and among their specialist suppliers of workboat services – with it usually being much easier to get smaller vessels to comply with such expectations and requirements.

The design innovations touched on above also support and encourage new perceptions about decarbonisation necessities and opportunities. Electrification is often seen as one potential “path” to ESG-driven acceptability and SDG compliance – on land, in particular. At sea, it’s not quite so easy. There aren’t any charging points out there, and with current technology the batteries needed for any half-way-respectably-sized electrically driven vessel for longer-distance operations would probably be prohibitively heavy.

One company addressing this is Candela Technology, based in Sweden. Innovative Candela approaches include placing lightweight, silent, high-efficiency electric motors in the water, below the hull, and integrated with the foiling structure – the company calls its Candela C-POD unit “the most efficient and long-lasting boat motor ever made”. At the same time, Candela collaborates with Polestar – the electric car manufacturer – to source battery packs featuring the high energy density and safety standards employed in modern EVs.

There are also conventional-yet-better solutions like Alfadan outboard ICEs as well as related innovations such as toroidal propellers. Other high-interest, big-potential propulsion solutions include the whole spectrum of hybrid-electric configurations and Azipod® electric propulsion units. The elephant in the room is, of course, that shipbuilders may not have any option other than zero-emissions propulsion solutions if they are to justify and investor-explain their way of doing business in a zero-carbon economy.

Technology cross-fertilisation and transfer

Some of the biggest breakthroughs associated with designing, building and operating commercial workboats stem from escaping from the conceptual and engineering confines of traditional “heavy metal” shipbuilding, and often including ideas, expertise and capabilities from motorsport, aerospace and sailboat racing – with Artemis Technologies in Northern Ireland and Tuco Marine Group in Denmark as two high-profile examples of the latter. Combining fast-evolving capabilities available in materials science, structural engineering, automation, robotics, electronics, hydraulics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics and digital design/simulation makes it possible to radically rethink what’s possible with high-performance maritime design and technology.

It’s (relatively) easy to transfer a whole slew of advanced technologies and Ai-driven capabilities from the worlds of aviation and automobiles into workboats and other vessels. For example, Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) is already resulting in significant rethinks of military aviation operations, and similar opportunities seem available for fleets of autonomous and semi-autonomous workboats, using technology available from companies such as SEA.AI. As just one example, the cross-over with smaller, flexible workboats is clearly visible in the Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior programme for unmanned and autonomous vehicles.

Digital harvesting

Nowadays, commercial and industrial capabilities (and delivered value) often stem more from computers, electronics and sensors than from mechanical equipment, cargo and passengers. In modern maritime operations, an increasing portion of the “gain” is in the form of some kind of data. Measurement, registration and documentation are now critical elements in just about every commercial enterprise – without the accompanying data and documentation, most physical assets are essentially valueless.

Data is what makes it possible to analyse conditions, to make well-informed predictions about how, where and when to deploy valuable, expensive-to-operate maritime assets and engineering efforts, and to take the best decisions with regard to parameters like maximising revenue, increasing reliability or speeding up delivery, as well as documenting all kinds of maritime operations as well as their environmental impacts.

This is one key reason why relatively small workboats equipped with the appropriate electronics and data management capabilities can so often replace much larger traditional vessels – and usually with a significant upward cost-effectiveness bump. The countless variants of modern digital capabilities mean that small and smallish workboats, featuring relatively small crews and low operating costs, can often punch way above their weight in terms of operating benefits and value generation.

Truncating timelines and greater customer-centricity

The markets that maritime commercial operations have to serve are also changing rapidly. They have been significantly dented and bent out of shape by recent demonstrations of the practical and geopolitical vulnerability of global supply chains, along with big shifts in market requirements, legislative frameworks and technical standards. The days of commercial vessels plying the same routes for years on end are largely gone, as are long amortisation periods for investments in the necessary tonnage.

Compared with fleets of large, expensive, single-purpose vessels, it often becomes better business to own or operate larger numbers of smaller boats featuring customised and customisable configurations, and with specialist capabilities that together result in greater operating flexibility. Here, too, the fast-response/rapid rollout and speedy iteration requirements favour smaller vessels such as RIBs as well as larger, more capable types of workboats.

There’s also been a significant shift in the overall shipbuilding focus, away from the big, inflexible limitations of traditional manufacturing setups at relatively few massive shipyards, and towards a proliferation of buy-off-the-screen workboat designs aimed at meeting specific operating requirements – the Gurit and Incat Crowther product catalogues are just two examples of this. This represents a crucial shift from traditional mindsets based on what a builder considers commercially desirable to put on the market, towards a more customer-centric focus on what the operator actually wants and needs – both today and tomorrow. This is one of the reasons why – for example – modular, multipurpose Project Vahana workboats were selected as the preferred solution for meeting a broad spectrum of practical operating requirements in the redoubtable Royal Navy.

Population pressure

As the world population continues to grow, and nimby concerns about “old-school” industrial facilities become more prevalent, there is increasing interest in placing significant production capabilities (for energy, food and raw materials, in particular) more out to sea.

Moving on from fixed-mounted early-generation offshore wind farms, floating power generation is just one example. According to one source, less than 200 megawatts of floating wind capacity had been commissioned by the end of 2022, but this figure is predicted to reach 63 gigawatts by 2035. This is just one commercial driver for the introduction of many different kinds of offshore service vessels as well as other specialist workboats (the FLOW-SV concept from Damen Shipyards is one example), and in larger numbers than previously seen.

Yet another “push element” for workboat market growth is that in the longer term, rising sea levels resulting from global warming are likely to impact many current main shipping lanes and navigation channels, as well as altering access routes to many rivers, ports and other loading/unloading facilities. Given that operating conditions are likely to be in an increasing state of unpredictable flux, larger numbers of smaller, more versatile workboats with built-in flexibility therefore seem to be part of any realistic recipe for greater service resilience,

Rethinking manufacturing and scalability

    • (Very) simply put, the many new perspectives for the business of modern shipbuilding involve maximising practical (= bankable) capabilities while keeping operating costs, environmental impacts and manpower requirements to a minimum. If the design and manufacturing that produce the vessel are sufficiently intelligent and well-organised, many ships and workboats no longer have to be big and brawny to earn the big bucks.

With fully fledged digital tools, design and development work can be effectively de-coupled from manufacturing – the two activities no longer need to have any kind of geographical, temporal or organisational proximity. Well-planned combinations of digitalisation and automation mean that ready-for-manufacturing ship/boat designs can be sent elsewhere with just a keystroke. Such game-changer capabilities also reduce cost differences associated with manpower and legacy infrastructure. This in turn makes it feasible  – in principle, at least! – to have broadly comparable production costs anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, when the vessels and their modular components are smaller, shipbuilders are no longer restricted to locations close to water. Modern equipment and facilities used to build and assemble modules for larger ships as well as for small-to-medium-sized workboats can often be installed in bog-standard anonymous concrete-box factories on industrial estates virtually anywhere.

Such “deconstructed” and “democratised” access to manufacturing can be a way to reduce manufacturing costs and supply chain vulnerabilities as well as to limit the environmental impacts of transporting materials, components and finished products around the globe from one market to another. Might there even be potential for on-demand production configurations in which you are able to get a modular workboat designed by the best in the world and built as you want (well, more or less), from where you want? Could manufacturing really now be “global but local”?

However, there may be some issues stemming from the fragmentation that could occur as a result of many different, smaller companies churning out large numbers of non-standard workboats customised for special requirements. This could easily result in a myriad of future gremlins and hidden costs associated with proprietary engineering solutions, systems incompatibility and availability issues with spare parts, as well as practical difficulties with maintenance and service work.

From product to process

Traditional shipbuilding is often rooted in shipyard-based business models whose core tenets and basic assumptions are several centuries old. It’s also worth noting that the mindset behind such production thinking and behind shipbuilding and commercial vessel operations usually involves a natural focus on the finished product. After all, it’s much easier to photograph, film and drape journo-speak around a physical entity, with ships providing many familiar visual and descriptive clichés, along with conceptual and engineering comfort zones built up over centuries.

It’s more difficult to identify and describe operating metrics that involve intangible cost benefits, improvements in service delivery, greater environmental responsibility and glimpses of unexplored commercial opportunities in a rapidly changing world. These are often characterised by new perceptual parameters and operating frameworks that many people aren’t fully aware of – whether they’re in maritime-linked decision-making positions or not. 

Ensuring a viable business case and investor-pleasing profitability in a carbon-neutral future won’t happen by simply tweaking familiar formulas historically and practically structured around traditional single-supplier inflexibility. When it’s easier and cheaper to containerise, modularise and link together many kinds of manufacturing equipment, changes in the whole shipbuilding paradigm are up for grabs. Eye-catching examples include additive manufacturing company ExOne being contracted to supply containerised 3D printing setups to the US Department of Defense, while the Forakis strategic design agency is currently touting the world’s first robotically 3D-printed superyacht as a solar-electric/hydrogen hybrid. Instead of using the traditional production line model, next-generation vehicle manufacturer Arrival is focusing on smaller, cheaper, decentralised and community-rooted “microfactories” featuring robots, modularuíty and cell-based assembly to build its electric vans and buses.

When a company like Relativity Space is able to combine 3D printing, artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics and in-house manufacturing to reduce the number of components needed to build space rockets by 90% (they say) compared to conventionally built ones, the writing is on the wall. If this can be done for rockets that have to withstand being launched into space, surely this kind of rethink can be done for seagoing workboats?

One thing seems fairly certain. There seem to lie big commercial and technical opportunities in a radical rethink of the business models for designing and building high-tech, high-performance workboats – provided that the discussion becomes at least as much about the process as about the product.









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