RetroSicotte wrote:Paywalled for me, unfortunately!
Three clocks labelled Ottawa, Glasgow and Adelaide sit on the wall of a meeting room at BAE Systems’ Govan shipyard on the River Clyde.
The site is where the defence giant is building the first batch of a planned eight Type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy.
The cities named under each of the clocks allude to the agreements to sell the ship’s design to Canada, where a local company will build 15 of them under licence, and Australia, where BAE will construct nine vessels based on the Type 26 design. Other countries are also interested.
Britain’s civilian shipbuilding industry is but a shadow of what it once was, but the export success of the Type 26 shows the country is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to building warships.
The first of Type 26s - also known as the City Class frigates - will not be in service with the Navy until the mid-2020s, far too late to deal with the current flare-up in the Gulf after Iran seized a British-flagged tank in the Strait of Hormuz at the weekend.
Building them is a “generational, almost once in a lifetime opportunity”, says Steve Timms, BAE’s head of naval ships.
Although the frigates’ designs will make them some of - if not the - most advanced warships in the world when they start entering service with the Navy in the middle of the next decade, it wasn’t just their military ability that helped secure export customers.
Part of their attraction came from the digital technology being used in their design and construction.
“The Type 26 is the first significant warship programme to depart from the tradition to design ships with drawings,” says Timms.
Designers working on the Type 26 for the UK adopted the technology long used in other sectors, creating ships that exist in a virtual world.
By donning 3D glasses in a special visualisation suite, designers, engineers and even the sailors will crew the vessels have been able to walk through a digital version of the ship long before the first steel is cut.
This allows problems and snags to be discovered and worked out quickly in the flexible and cheap digital realm long before they become real, while their future crews have been able to see how they ships will work and make improvements.
Shipyard workers also use it to plan how they will build the vessels, with details of every single component available at the click of a button, showing where the part is, who is building it and what it's made of.
BAE has a network of visualisation suites, including one in Australia, with updates to the design refreshed every night meaning that no matter where staff are working, they are seeing the latest version.
“This system has played a big part in selling the design abroad,” adds Timms. “We’ve had visits from foreign navies and they can see they benefits of being able to change things quickly and to their own specifications.”
The Australian and Canadian versions of the Type 26 uses the same basic ship design with adaptations to suit each country’s needs, such as preferred weapon systems and sensors.
Across the yard, work is already well under way on HMS Glasgow. Type 26 programme director Nadia Savage says the design of the ship is three quarters complete, with 50pc of its components committed to manufacturing and 35pc of the ship in construction in the site's huge riverside halls.
She adds that the power of the digital design was enough to convince foreign navies to buy into the programme, despite there not being a completed design, let alone a physical ship they could examine.
“This isn’t a paper ship with lots of ramifications still to happen - this is a mature digital model that allows us and our customers to move forward with confidence," Savage says.
It’s not just BAE that will benefit from selling the design abroad. Simple economies of scale mean that with more ships being built, common parts - such as engines, generators, gearboxes - are likely to get cheaper, while creating more work for suppliers.
Out in the shipyard among the sparks of sheet steel being cut into sections which form the ships, head of operations Ross McLure explains how they are being built in blocks, with as many systems as possible put into each one before being slotted into place.
“It’s a lot easier to work when you have the space of not being inside the hull, the way ships were built historically,” he says. The front and back halves of each ship are being built in two separate halls - there isn’t space to build each 7,000 tonne vessel entirely in one building - and the two giant sections will eventually be joined together outside.
Tony Hepburn, product manager for the ships, says the digital design and visualisation suites have made construction work easier.
“We’re seeing fewer problems,” he says. “The old school was to lift a part in and if it didn’t fit then cut it with a burner.”
Laser scans of the ships as they are built show the physical product is within 1mm of the design - levels of accuracy that Hepburn says have surprised some veterans of the shipyard.
However, things aren’t entirely perfect, he admits, giving an example of how a hatch was too close to bulkhead, meaning it couldn’t open easily.
“We moved it 30mm so it now works,” Hepburn says. “But we could easily update the computer so it won’t happen on future ships.”
The shipyard, which has about 3,000 staff, takes on about 100 apprentices a year and they see the Type 26 as a career’s worth of work. “My dad and grandfather worked here,” says one. “This is 20 years' work and whatever follows on from that.”
While BAE may be riding high now, things haven’t always been so positive for its shipbuilding business. Irregular orders from government meant layoffs for staff with little to do and a resulting loss of skills in the industry.
While the future for Glasgow shipbuilders looks certain for several decades, some say that work on the Type 26 has been slowed by government not only to ease the strained Ministry of Defence budget, but also to ensure jobs over a longer period.
This could present problems for the Navy. In 2023 the frigates Type 26s are due to replace start coming out of service.
“The MoD and BAE say that the first Type 26 will be ready in the mid-2020s but it’s not going to be in service until 2027,” says Peter Sandeman, founder of lobby group Save the Royal Navy. “They could be done faster but this way protects jobs and spreads the cost.”
Timms says that Royal Navy’s T26 programme is about three years ahead of Australia’s version, which is roughly another two years down the line.
He denies that this means that Britain is taking the risk by being the first customer for ships that will sell abroad, and therefore likely to face costs for any unexpected problems that crop up that others will avoid.
“We’ve de-risked this programme more than anything that’s gone before thanks to the new technology we’re using,” he says. “And this is something that we were doing anyway - why shouldn’t the country get the maximum benefit out of selling that effort abroad?”
And the effort of creating the Type 26 could produce future savings for the UK, Timms thinks.
“The Type 45 destroyers are going to need to be replaced in the late 2030s,” he says, adding the Type 26 and Type 45 are roughly the same size. “There’s a lot of capability in the Type 26 design, that’s demonstrated by Australia and Canada wanting it. The core of it could become the core of a new destroyer.”