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The Stages of Shipbuilding in the Maritime Sector

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Shipbuilding and marine transportation are the two primary sectors around which the shipping industry, and the maritime industry as a whole, are built. Despite the differences between the two sectors, both are closely related and exhibit a strong, if somewhat direct dependency on each other as well the success of the global economy. 

For obvious reasons, shipbuilding in particular plays a huge role in the ongoing operations of the maritime industry. A skill that stretches back thousands of years, the tradition of shipbuilding continues today as modern engineers and technicians continue to contend with the world’s most demanding and dangerous environments – our oceans. From cruise ships and yachts to tankers and military boats, shipbuilding remains one of the most important services provided worldwide.

So what is shipbuilding? And what are the different stages of building an efficient ocean-going vessel?

What is shipbuilding?

Shipbuilding, as the name suggests, is the process of designing and building marine vessels for use in the operational procedures and processes within the maritime industry.

Shipbuilding has a vast history that dates back thousands of years. Austronesian people built the first ocean-going ships in approximately 3000 BC. There is also evidence that suggests the development of hulls began in Ancient Egypt about 3100 BC. In fact, some Egyptian pottery even depicts designs for ships and boats as early as 4000 BC.

Nowadays, shipbuilding services focus mostly on the construction of larger ships for merchant fleets, which supports the offshore energy sector as well as cargo and passenger transportation. The shipbuilding industry also deals with the provision of goods and services for the conversion, retrofitting and maintenance of boats and ships in addition to the construction of new vessels.

China, Japan, and South Korea are currently the three major shipbuilding nations. In 2019, China engineered 22.3 million gross tonnes of ships. Despite a sharp decline in shipbuilding over the past few decades, Europe continues to be a vibrant centre for commercial shipbuilding, with more than 150 shipyards employing about 120,000 people. The primary focus of the shipbuilding industry in Europe is cruise ships, ferries, luxury yachts, and navy vessels, which account for about 6% of the global market share in terms of tonnage.

Other services

The shipbuilding sector plays a major role in the success of the global economy. Aside from the actual construction of a vessel, other services offered include:

  • Engineering & consultancy – Professional shipbuilding companies often manage and oversee the construction and engineering of a vessel in addition to the conceptual design and initial implementation. This included consulting services by combining efficient project management with the requirements of the client.
  • Conversion services – The conversion, refit, and retrofit of existing vessels is also frequently handled by the shipbuilding sector, which includes recommending a suitable dock and/or shipyard, creating the most innovative design for the ship, determining the necessary infrastructure and of course, deploying the best team to complete the task.
  • Repairs & maintenance – As the name implies, the shipbuilding business is also responsible for the upkeep and essential repairs of the vessels used by the maritime sector.

Why is shipbuilding important?

Although the shipbuilding and maritime transportation businesses are distinct from one another, they are nonetheless tightly related and dependent on the functioning of global markets and trade.

The maritime industry, which today moves 90% of global trade annually, supports the global shipping sector as well as a number of other crucial services. The building of large ships and vessels is the foundation of the shipping and transportation industry. Therefore, without shipbuilding services, the maritime industry’s productivity, efficiency and profitability would stall and eventually, grind to a halt. In a similar fashion, the shipbuilding industry also relies on the success of maritime services such as shipping to continue operating and maximising profitability.  

The stages of shipbuilding

The stages of constructing a vessel can generally be divided into five points: 

  • Design – At the beginning of the design process, requests are negotiated with the ship owner. A general strategy is created that will deliver the best possible performance. Any challenges or constraints are taken into account. 
  • Implementation – Pieces of the ship are constructed from the initial drawings and models created. The size, shape and overall design of the vessel will depend on the type of ship being constructed, as well as its intended use.
  • Assembly – The vessel is constructed bit by bit and carefully welded together. This is most often completed in a dry dock at a purpose-built port.
  • Launch – Once construction is complete, the vessel is floated for the first time. For any staff working on the vessel including any employees working in the shipyard, the first launch of the ship is a particularly tense time.
  • Outfitting – Once the vessel has been launched successfully, it is equipped or outfitted with pipes, an engine and an electrical system.

Final thoughts

The legacy of shipbuilding, a profession with perhaps one of the longest histories in the world, is still practised today by engineers and technicians who must work in one of the world’s most challenging and hazardous environments – our oceans. Playing a vital role in the operations of the maritime industry, the sector continues to be one of the most crucial services offered globally, producing all kinds of vessels from tankers and military boats to cruise ships and yachts.

Today, the shipbuilding industry is mostly focused on building larger ships for commercial fleets, whose services include the transportation of products and people as well as assistance for the offshore industry. The shipbuilding industry also deals with the provision of goods and services for the conversion, retrofitting, refitting and general maintenance of large and small vessels alike in addition to the construction of new builds. Its contribution to the global economy should not be overlooked.

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