Why the construction industry should take a closer look at modern shipbuilding

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Martin Stacey
April 14, 2021

It is hard to overlook some of the striking similarities modern cruise ships and the shipbuilding industry have with Archigrams utopian prefab cities of the 1960s, somehow this industry has mastered many fabrication concepts that were only dreams in the building industry and are just taking momentum. This is why it can be intriguing to take a glimpse at how shipbuilding industry works and what it can tell us about the future of AEC.


Construction dreams of the 60’s

More than 60 years ago, a group of then young architects, inspired by technological breakthroughs, the space race, the Beatles, and a changing society envisioned neofuturistic cities of how the world could look like. They took existing avant-garde technologies and magnified their potential though a series of images of fictional cities. Ron Herron’s walking city would explore a moving city that could seek for settling conditions and relocate. Peter Cook’s instant city would explore a floating cultural city that would bring entertainment to remote towns. Finally, the plugin-city, another one of Peter’s creations, would explore mega structural frameworks that could support connectable prefab dwellings. Curiously, the ship industry embraced many of these concepts specially when talking about construction, cruises are built as instant-plugin-moving cities, and their fabrication is done on highly industrialized environments with impeccable coordination and tight schedules.


The cruise ship construction industry

Modern cruises have many of the elements and building complexities of a city, but unlike the city they are manufactured offsite with the latest MMC technologies. Both cruises and cities possess a mixture of private units, and public spaces; both cruises and cities rely on a network of infrastructure to supply the needs of its inhabitants; but in terms of construction, ship building has advanced at a much faster pace.


Much of the developments made in the ship building industry have been boosted by the nature and pace of the industry. The demands for rapid and precise construction have pushed the industry to rely on off-site manufacturing. In that sense, ship building would resemble more the automotive industry than the building construction industry, but instead of the product moving through an assembly line, the assembly line is constantly transforming to meet the demands of the finished product. Building in controlled environments has also enabled ships to rely more on heavy machinery like gantry cranes and robotic plate cutting, simplifying the creation of complex shapes needed to give ships its light and aerodynamic shapes.

METAL SHEET CUTTING AND CLASSIFICATION – Extreme Constructions: The Meraviglia Cruise Ship

The advances in ship construction have also made the industry demand more end-to-end integrated design procedures, where a constant communication between the design intent and the finish product is required. Data plays a key role in here. As multiple players across industries are involved in the process, being able to prototype, analyse results and communicate across platforms is vital.

Autocad and Factory Examples – MV Werften - Matterlab Collaboration

Is this applicable to the AEC industry?

It is important to ask why the AEC industry has been reluctant to implement many of these technologies, even though they have been present in parallel industries and in the minds of thinkers and futurists. Many of the industrialized offerings of building construction have been overestimated and not as disruptive as they claim to be. From Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House to more recent Michelle Kaufman’s modular homes, it almost felt as if regular methods of construction would be replaced in the last century. But many factors such as a negative connotation of investing in industrially produced dwellings, inflexibility for customization, and zoning regulations have slowed this progress.

However, it may seem that some of these factors are slowly reversing. First, the negative connotation on industrially produced dwellings was mainly attributed to the baby boomer generation. The millennial generation both by mindset and necessity would be more inclined to fast pace and technology driven solutions rather than brick and mortar investments. Also, through advances and a renewed interest in computational design we may also be able to customize industrialized fabrication easier. This may mean that soon the shipbuilding industry would have a thing or two to teach the AEC industry on technology implementation.

Tools that we can create to help both industries

One of the elements that is vital in operating MMC construction is the investment on custom design technologies. This is something that we are constantly exploring at matterlab. After a close collaboration with the Hong Kong–German shipbuilding company MV Werften for a tool that explored how computational design and automation may help the ship design process, it was evident that there were lots of opportunities of synergy from the mixture of these two worlds.  We explored how computational design and automation could help in the conceptual design and quantification of cabins in a cruise ship.

The idea was to create a communication bridge between design intent and construction reality, so users could easily prototype in an AutoCAD environment and then map it to more complex 3d models constructed in Autodesk Factory. Both software are preferred by the ship building industry. Users could also analyse new ship designs and compare and quantify various cabin mixes (luxury, regular, mid) in real time.

Deck design application – MV Werften - Matterlab Collaboration

The future

In the current times of uncertainty, it may be wise to revisit crazy ideas of the past and other areas for innovation. We must understand and analyse both their achievements and their shortcomings. Both industries have demands for creating more sustainable, acquirable and effective ways of operation, and in the end, solutions may came where we list expect them.  


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