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Inside BAE Systems’ digital naval shipyard 

BAE Systems is building a digital shipyard in Adelaide to support its bid to build frigates for the Australian government. Dr Gareth Evans finds out more about the plan and asks what BAE will gain from digitalising the naval shipbuilding process. 

Last September, BAE Systems revealed plans to build a A$100m digital shipyard in Adelaide, if the company’s contender wins the competition for the Royal Australian Navy’s SEA 5000 Future Frigate programme. While the final decision between Navantia’s evolved F-100, Fincantieri’s modified FREMM and BAE’s variant Type 26 ‘Global Combat Ship’ is not scheduled to be made until later this year, the announcement focused attention on one of the sector’s hottest, but arguably lesser known, topics – digitised shipbuilding. Gareth

Better, faster, cheaper: Embracing ‘smart’ manufacturing

Over recent years, shipbuilders have been steadily moving away from their legacy production methods and increasingly outdated, and often out-of-sync, yards, to embrace ‘smart’ manufacturing approaches and bring streamlined, data-rich efficiency to the design and build process.


Now, with naval budgets under pressure and defence spending in general subject to unprecedented scrutiny, those moves have gained even more traction as the demand to build warships better, faster and cheaper has become the mantra of the day.


The next generation, digitised and date-driven shipyard not only promises cheaper and more efficient design and construction, but should also drive down the cost of ownership too. The key is creating a digital thread, a synchronised body of information that encompasses the entire supply chain, and builds into what has been called a ‘single version of the truth’ that governs everything from conception, design and construction, to upgrades and modifications throughout the vessel’s in-service life.

Shipbuilding 4.0: automation and data-exchange 

Under the traditional shipbuilding model, separate and discrete unit workflows were the order of the day, with the overall design broken down into a series of individual task areas, each unconnected to the next, and essentially without any level of direct interaction.


As work progressed, plans would travel backwards and forwards between the individual teams so that changes and developments could be reconciled manually, which obviously extends the build time, while also multiplying the potential for mistakes or omissions to creep in. In addition, denied the immediacy of real-time collaboration, any cross-fertilisation of ideas between the different teams was also virtually impossible.

“The digital shipyard replaces the old isolated, disparate technology platforms and their compartmentalised data.”

Move forward to what some have dubbed the ‘shipbuilding 4.0’ model in reference to the adoption of the so-called ‘industry 4.0’ automation and data-exchange revolution that is sweeping manufacturing in general, and those issues become a thing of the past.


The digital shipyard replaces the old isolated, disparate technology platforms and their compartmentalised data, with united state-of-the-art planning tools, and a single common repository of design data that is always current, and available to anyone who needs it.

Encompassing the entire supply chain

Extending that idea to encompass the entire supply chain and all the relevant stakeholders across the whole project provides a centralised, accessible ‘single truth’ for the vessel from cradle-to-grave, and that means that ship design and building costs become significantly lower. 


According to Matt Mulherin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding – the company charged with designing and building the US Navy’s aircraft carriers – moving to ‘drawing-less plans’ for the likes of the forthcoming USS Enterprise (CVN-80) could mean savings of more than 15%. For acolytes of ‘better, faster, cheaper’ shipbuilding, that alone is music to the ears, but the digital naval shipyard holds the promise of still more.

3D modelling: Best-fit solutions and ‘single truth’ simulations

While the injection of advanced product lifecycle management (PLM) software into the shipbuilding process has wrought a step-change in the management of data from project start to finish, a similar shift has occurred in terms of the three-dimensional planning too.


State-of-the-art 3D modelling software brings the ability to examine parts, spaces and internal structures before they are built, allowing designers to verify and optimise where equipment, piping and wiring runs will be located, and iron out potential problems and conflicts long before they become a physical reality. It also means that different features, fittings and functions can also be tried out in advance to optimise the eventual ergonomics of operation and future maintenance routines, with the best-fit solution then instantly being fed back to form part of the overall ‘single truth’.


There are major gains to be made also during the manufacturing phase. Digital 3D modelling allows simulations of the whole fabrication process to be run, enabling shipbuilders to examine each step in turn, and so optimise material flows throughout the assembly process, right up to the point the vessel leaves the yard – and the benefits of a ship having its own persistent digital twin do not stop there. 

Persistent digital twin: Adapting for optimisation

The evolution of warships has given rise to fleets that are more technologically advanced and complex than ever before, and now navies are increasingly calling for those vessels to both last longer and remain future-proof over that extended lifespan. Ensuring the necessary adaptability to the changing demands and shifting roles that they may be tasked with in 50-plus years of service will inevitably involve upgrades and retro-fits, which could be where the digital twin concept will really begin to come into its own.

“The digital twin could also play a major role in investigating the greater ongoing impact of new roles on the vessels fabric and systems, enabling highly realistic simulation to be run to explore performance in a range of hypothetical scenarios.”

At the simplest end of that spectrum, having an exact virtual replica of the class-design available should mean that when a retro-fit or upgrade is being planned, the engineers and naval architects responsible can see how it will all fit together, and so optimise the redesign.


Going further, however, the digital twin could also play a major role in investigating the greater ongoing impact of new roles on the vessels fabric and systems, enabling highly realistic simulations to be run to explore performance in a range of hypothetical scenarios, without actually risking the ship itself. In extremis, it could even provide the means for on-shore experts to help the crew resolve serious or unexpected problems at sea.

Digital-only blueprints for Future Frigates

Whether or not BAE do ultimately win the contract to build Australia’s nine new Future Frigates and build their digital shipyard in Adelaide, there is no doubt that digitised shipbuilding is the way of the future. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Newport News Shipbuilding’s parent company, has proposed using digital-only blueprints for its next aircraft carrier, the future Enterprise.

“Digitisation enables a significant step change across every element of a traditional ship design and build programme.”

It comes against a background of several successfully implemented pilot initiatives, including digitising over 1,000 individual work packages for its predecessor, the future John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), and retrospectively building laser-scanned, 3D images of the spaces within the earlier Nimitz-class carriers. They have already generated what have been described as “pretty significant savings” on the new-build and helped simplify the mid-life overhaul of the older carriers, despite making use of only a very small part of what digital shipbuilding can potentially do – and this is only the beginning.


As BAE Systems chief executive Glynn Phillips said back in September, “digitisation enables a significant step change across every element of a traditional ship design and build programme.”


There is much more to come.

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