Vessel Design: What Drives Ship Design? Evolution or Revolution

John Bonafoux

Although many would argue that in recent years there has been no revolution in vessel design, continuous development of new materials, propulsion systems and hull-forms are helping to provide a myriad of new and exciting, design possibilities.

Although many would argue that in recent years there has been no single ‘step change’ or revolution in vessel design, continuous development of new materials, propulsion systems and hull-forms are helping to provide a myriad of new and exciting, design possibilities. John Bonafoux, managing director of BMT Nigel Gee explains:

Whether it is for high-speed passenger ferries, workboats, yachts or specialist military vessels, we now have access to a far wider range of materials that all require due consideration – anything from steel and aluminium through to advanced composites using carbon fiber, Kevlar and honeycomb sandwich construction, all with their own distinct advantages.

Furthermore, the development of pioneering propulsion systems such as the Voith linear jet (VLJ), a hybrid design between a propeller and a water jet, is also a key enabler and many owners are recognizing the potential efficiencies and improvements in operational performance that such systems can offer. There is also huge interest in ‘green’ propulsion systems and innovative designs such as Project Vindskip that exploit the wind for propulsion is a fascinating concept with huge efficiency potential.

The use of modern nuclear power is yet another propulsion alternative which could offer huge benefits in terms of efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions. However, it is still very much a politically sensitive and contentious issue within the commercial maritime sector. Although there are still some engineering challenges to overcome, projects such as the small modular reactor (SMR), clearly highlight the viability of this clean energy source and further research and development investment should certainly be encouraged.

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revolution or evolutionA subtle revolution

Ironically, what makes a new, ‘radical’ hull form work so effectively can often come down to very subtle changes in the design. There are many examples where small changes in the hull form design have resulted in significant reductions in resistance, or major improvements in sea keeping ability. It is about taking a holistic approach to optimizing the overall design that will ultimately have the biggest or most radical impact. Our new high efficiency crew boat design is a good example of this, where we have managed to achieve a 14 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over existing, high performance designs through careful optimization of the overall hull form.

Although it is important for any design and engineering company to establish a culture of freedom where its people are encouraged to ‘innovate’ - think outside the box and experiment with new ideas, it is equally important to be grounded and realistic. Far too often we see wild claims related to vessel performance and possible fuel efficiencies for new designs that are somewhat overly optimistic. 

Design for the economic climate 

In these challenging economic times being grounded in commercial realities is equally important when looking to remain competitive in the market place. Often, new vessel designs will be driven by a specific set of requirements from the customer. In other cases, the drivers for a more advanced vessel design stem from us working closely with the customer to understand their operational challenges or needs better and then developing a new design which we can demonstrate will provide substantial benefits to their operation.

Our diversity across different sectors can also lead to a significant competitive advantage. Our involvement in the design of most types of hull forms provides a breadth of knowledge with exposure to many different materials and technologies. Indeed, if you are limited to designing container vessels, then you are unlikely to get involved in any lightweight, aluminum or advanced composite material. Having a diverse portfolio of vessels provides the opportunity to cross fertilize technologies and consider all of the options to help deliver the optimum design for the customer.

John was a founding partner of Nigel Gee and Associates in 1986 and helped grow the company, now known as BMT Nigel Gee, to the success it is today. John understands the importance of a having a strong team who are passionate about producing designs that really meet clients’ requirements. John is still involved at every level of the company and gets a buzz from taking a vessel design from concept to successful delivery.

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