Research, shipbuilding’s secret weapon

With a European turnover of 13 billion euros in 2006, shipbuilding is a strategic sector. Since Japan and South Korea captured the market in mass-produced standard vessels, Europe has focused on sophisticated manufacture and innovation. Today, however, with China fast on their heels, the two Asian countries are starting to build cruise ships, a sector in which Europe has enjoyed a virtual monopoly and the bedrock of Europe’s shipbuilding industry. Faced with this threat, Europe is fighting back with the Waterborne TP – Technology Platform – that unites all the sea transport stakeholders in an attempt to change the way strategic decisions in research are made, guarantee sustainable competitiveness and set a steady course for 2020.

Shipyard in Setubal (Portugal). ©CESA Shipyard in Setubal (Portugal). ©CESA
Testing the Berlioz ferry, Atlantic shipyards (France). ©CESA Testing the Berlioz ferry, Atlantic shipyards (France). ©CESA

Saint Nazaire (FR). The shipyard is huge, the size of 14 soccer pitches. Alongside the dry docks used for construction, lines of cranes and the 70-metre high gantry tower above the hangars, steel cutting chains and assembly workshops. Welders are everywhere, the occasional group pausing for a smoke. Higher up, three men suspended in their harnesses are putting the finishing touches to the hull painting.

7 300 people are employed at the 108 hectares of one of Europe’s oldest shipyards, on the banks of the Loire. A place where motorisation experts rub shoulders with bridge parts suppliers, electronics experts and interior architects. Each specialist is there to help fit the steel skeleton of the Poesia, the future floating city 325 metres in length and with accommodation for up to 6 400 passengers that is a model of integrated technologies. Orchestrating the subcontractors is Aker Yards, the international group that, since 2006, has owned the former Atlantic Shipyard and 17 other sites around the world.

The - distorted - rules of the game

This grouping of shipyards illustrates the intense competition that governs the market. After World War II, South Korea and Japan built their industrial structure by investing in shipbuilding, a very advantageous field in terms of the jobs, technological innovation and foreign currency it generates. However, over-investment by governments distorted international competition. In 1999, after having increased its production capacities independently of trends in demand, South Korea became the number one on the world market. Europe’s shipbuilding industry has borne the full brunt of these policies, losing 75 % of its shipbuilding jobs in the past three decades. However, thanks to its unique maritime history - from trade routes to geographical conquest - Europe did not go under and retained the advantage in building complex vessels. As the mass production of simple tankers shifted to Asia, so the European workforce specialised in the construction and fitting of more sophisticated vessels.

This network of subcontractors has succeeded in providing a prompt and effective response to changing demand and high technologies. More than 9 000 external producers - most of them SMEs - generate around 70 % of the total production. Thanks to them, Europe today continues to dominate market niches for vessels with a high added value, such as off-shore platforms, gas and chemical transporters, dredging vessels, super yachts and above all the cruise ship market in which it has a virtual monopoly.

High technology at sea

Although it may not seem like it, behind the walls of these cruise ships lies a labyrinth of circuits and systems. Dictated by today’s standards in comfort, safety and ecology, systems providing air-conditioning - one of the biggest budgets -, water distribution, food storage, electricity, safety, and computerised management are all present, as well as wastewater treatment plants, incinerators and waste compacting units to avoid the need to dump waste at sea.

It is very rare for any two vessels leaving a shipyard to be identical. With long production and refitting schedules - it takes three years to build a vessel with a service life of 30 years -, these giants of the oceans incorporate clean technology applications developed on a caseby- case basis. Adaptation to demand requires continuous innovation that is very characteristic of the sector. Only a dense, tested and reliable industrial fabric is able to satisfy the needs of customers very sensitive to late delivery or budget overruns, as the expenditure involved requires forecasting the return on an investment from a vessel which is still in pieces in the shipyard.

It is here that Europe’s industrial versatility offers an undeniable advantage. Although Asia of course hires the services of foreign engineers, that is not enough to unseat Europe when it comes to building complex and sophisticated vessels. But for how long? Korea and Japan have been turning their attentions to cruise ships for the past 15 years. Concerned at China’s recent entry to the shipbuilding market, the two countries are today confirming these ambitions. Nevertheless, European industrialists believe it will take them at least 10 years to arrive at a finished product. [At the time of going to press, the South Korean shipping conglomerate STX Shipbuilding acquired 39.2 % of Aker Yards -Ed].

Research at the heart of the battle

Pascal Monard, head of research and development at Aker Yards in Saint-Nazaire, explains: “This period of grace does not mean that Europe can rest on its laurels and the Chinese are clearly planning on completing their first cruise ship by around 2012-2015. In 2003, at the time of launching Leadership 2015, (1) Europe became aware that it would have to defend its position.”

A direct descendant of the latter, since 2003 the InterSHIP (2) project has been developing the tools and design and production methods to remain at the forefront in terms of environmental and safety aspects while also improving profitability and optimising vessel life cycles. “In Saint-Nazaire”, explains Pascal Monard, “InterSHIP led us to cooperate with other European shipyards, on combining computer systems for example - the application of mobile computing at the yards and on board the ships. Essentially this means simplifying all the data and integrating digital and analogue systems. At present we have already combined 15 on-board applications.”

A large part of the community - seven shipyards, parts suppliers, classification companies and other industries - is already benefiting from progress in research thanks to InterSHIP, which has successfully launched horizontal and vertical cooperation and, in October 2007, achieved its competitiveness objective. “Despite the keen competition in our sector, the cooperation has been successful as it related to process development which is easier to share than applied innovation,” continues Pascal Monard. “A network of exchanges and links has been created that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Our participation in other projects, such as Flagship (2007-2011) - to develop an on-board system of aid to decisionmaking, piloting and safety - is linked directly to the links created within InterSHIP.” Looking to the future, he concludes that “InterSHIP has also served to define the basis of cooperation from 2008.”

An in-depth response

This new cooperation constitutes good progress. But to remain in the global race, Europe must look further. Since 2005, the Waterborne TP has provided a forum for European associations representing companies in each sector - shipowners, repairers, component manufacturers -, the political decision-makers, research institutes, universities and unions. Paris Sansouglou, secretary of the platform and of its coordinating body the CESA, (3) describes the goals.

“The platform is undertaking a fundamental reflection to establish and coordinate European R&D strategy. It involves its participants from the strategy definition stage through to the research projects that result,” he explains. “That makes it possible to ensure that European strategy is accepted and supported by all the players. And, in the face of market challenges, to set targets that test the industry’s innovations. For example, we know that the ‘Zero Emission’ target is unachievable as it would mean that passengers would have to stop breathing! But that does not mean we cannot aspire to the goal.”

“Participants describe this new strategy in three documents. The first is the common medium and long term vision, named Vision 2020, which defines three pillars: safe, sustainable and efficient sea transport, a competitiveEuropean waterborne industry, and managing the growth in transport volumes and changes in trade patterns,” adds Paris Sansouglou. “On that basis, the stakeholders evaluate the challenges facing the industry and formulate the actions needed to meet them in the Strategic Agenda for Maritime Research - WSRA, which sets out the itinerary and stages through to 2020. Finally, the WSRA Implementation Plan, the result of this agenda, is still to appear. This will define the projects and participating members,” he continues.

This implementation plan includes calls for funding “very delicate and political projects”, admits Paris Sansouglou, “because they affect the business sensitivities of each participant in this sector where everything is interconnected via subcontracting.” It is through such approaches in particular that Waterborne TP seeks to influence research policy at European regional, national and private level.

In addition to sensibilities, another difficulty is deadlines. Long-term research cooperation in the private sector is not to be taken for granted. At Aker Yards, Pascal Monard confirms this: “the difficulty lies in the synchronisation between the economic imperatives, which apply in the medium term, and imperatives that stem from the long-term research needs, usually without immediate applications.” That is also the view of Paris Sansouglou: “long-term reflection is a general problem for companies. But by dividing up the tasks you obtain both better results and reduced costs for each party.” The stakeholders have no other choice, because innovation is a key to ensuring lasting competitiveness in building cruise vessels, the bedrock of European shipbuilding.

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. Group of leading personalities and experts from all areas of the sector in Europe.
  2. Integrated collaborative design and production of cruise vessels, passenger ships and RO-Pax
  3. Community of European Shipyards Association