Thought Leadership

Shipbuilding 4.0: the digital thread in shipbuilding technology

By DigitalMariner

In December 2016, the U.S. Navy increased its current shipbuilding goal from 308 to a staggering 355 ships, so shipyards are being tasked with adding 18 vessels to their current production schedules over the coming years.

This presents a daunting challenge for the industry. Essentially, these shipbuilders are being asked to produce more ships — all of which are more technologically advanced and complicated than any previous generation — faster and better than ever before. And, government officials are demanding that ships last longer and be more adaptable to changing needs throughout their lives.

As daunting as it seems, the challenge posed by the Navy’s new goal is a familiar one. “More, better, for less” has been the battle cry in the manufacturing world since it first began to climb out of the Great Recession.

Now shipyards are beginning to find the solution for this contradictory mandate in the same place manufacturers have found theirs: the digital thread. 

Shipbuilding technology: from outdated methods to smart production 

Throughout the greater part of this decade, manufacturers have been on a steady course to bring production from the outdated, out-of-sync plants of the past and into the data-rich, streamlined and efficient future of the smart factory. The key to that transformation is in the data: creating a synchronized thread of digital information that connects even the most disparate global supply chains into a cohesive digital enterprise. Doing so creates a “single version of the truth” for the entire ecosystem, stretching from conception to production to service throughout the product lifecycle.

Think about how cloud computing has made it possible to update personal and professional information across different devices simultaneously. If you update a contact’s name in the directory on your phone, that update can automatically happen on a computer and tablet if they have compatible software that links to the “digital thread” on a remote server; so when you get back to your desk and look up that contact, you see the latest update.

The same concept can be applied to secure, connected tools and programs that are used for design, production planning and execution, operations and maintenance. An “industrial” digital thread:

• Prevents important information from “falling through the cracks” during work hand-offs
• Increases accountability because everyone uses the same record of work
• Ensures that future workers have a complete and accurate repository of a project’s or product’s history, whether they are working on standard maintenance or an upgrade
• Integrates separate software platforms because they are sharing the same foundational data
• Speeds up all processes within the product’s lifecycle

The new, data-driven and connected work model has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things. But whatever you call it, the payoff of this “digital thread” has been profound. By some estimates, leading manufacturers have seen 50 percent reductions in time, 30 percent lower engineering costs and as much as 50 percent higher throughput across their organizations.

That, we can say, is the power and potential of the digital thread. 

Post 1_PLM01_002_Connected_Shipyard.jpgLeading companies are learning how to harness the power of the digital thread in shipbuilding technology.Industry 4.0 moves to the shipyard

Today, facing a tidal wave of increased demand, shipbuilders are making this same digital leap to create the first truly digital shipyards. In the process, they are looking at a digital production boost for their marine engineering that could be on par with that of the inland manufacturing revolution.

Like the general manufacturing industry, implementing a consistent digital thread through the marine engineering process on a robust, end-to-end PLM system promises to clean up the often separated, discrete and unconnected shipbuilding technology platforms governing the building process.

Instead, anyone who is working on the ship throughout its life is granted access to synchronized, real-time data on designs and configurations, production status and schedules, materials and purchasing, suppliers and delivery, and — once the ships launch — operating conditions, service records and system status.

This ties the entire life of a ship — from a designer’s initial rough sketch to its last voyage at sea — to a single, traceable digital thread that is accessible to the farthest reaches of the supply chain.

In that thread, every change, every update, every improvement or problem can be synched to each player in the ecosystem to guarantee that everyone is working off the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. 

This means no more costly rework resulting from out-of-sync designs; it means shorter production schedules, smarter maintenance and, inevitably, better performance. And finally, it means the industry can meet its sky-high demands on time and on budget. 

Post 1_PLM01_002_Digital_Thread.jpgThe digital thread is bringing capabilities to marine engineering that weren’t possible until now.Digital shipbuilder expects 15 percent savings 

Newport News Shipbuilding is already well on its way toward this shipbuilding technology future.

As it begins work on a new Ford-class aircraft carrier, the company has instituted a “drawingless” strategy designed to kick-start work toward a smart shipyard.

The idea is to eliminate all paper or 2D drawings from the design process and replace them with 3D digital files that are available throughout the entire engineering group. This is the first seed of the digital thread — digitalizing a manual, 20th century process to create a new, streamlined system that helps the operators work smarter and be more synchronized through the entire build.

The shipbuilder expects this innovation to generate at least 15 percent more cost savings over traditional manufacturing methods. For a ship that can cost billions of dollars to build, that adds up to some significant improvements. And when you follow the thread out to sea, where those initial build costs continue to grow throughout the life of this ship, we can start to understand the real power this digital thread is offering the industry. 

This concludes the first part of our digital shipyard series. In part two, we look at the role the digital thread plays in shipbuilding technology for longer service life and a deeper range of future missions. 

About the author 
Tim Nichols 
is the Director of Marketing Communications for the Global Aerospace, Defense and Marine industries at Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of Siemens’ Digital Factory division. He has more than 30 years of experience in aerospace and defense, which spans product management, marketing, new business development and business management. Tim spent nine years of active duty with the United States Navy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds two graduate engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at