Shipbuilding Sets Sail with CAD

Technical drawing, and by extension CAD, owes quite a lot to the field of shipbuilding. Many of the tools used in technical drawing and CAD were once designed to assist shipbuilders with drawing curved hulls for vessels.This includes lofting in a 3D CAD program. The concept and name of lofting dates back to the process of shipbuilding draftsmen and their need to draw large curves on flat surfaces, as does the concepts of splines.

Ship hull construction geometry. (Image courtesy of William Sutherland, The Shipbuilders Assistant.)

As technical drawing standards became more standardized, the shipbuiliding industry was at the front of the queue, eager to implement the new methods. Conversely, when CAD became widely adopted in the 1980s, the shipbuilders were again at the forefront, ready to swap their French Curves for Bezier Curves.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that today’s shipbuilders are using SOLIDWORKS to assist with their designs. Here are a few examples of how SOLIDWORKS is used today in one of mankind’s oldest engineering domains: shipbuilding.

Kvichak Marine/Vigor

Seattle-based boat builder Kvichak Marine—now named Vigor after a successful merger—has been recognized for decades as a worldwide leader in the design and construction of high quality, hardworking aluminum vessels. Their designs range from small pilot boats, such as the 23 meter long Astoria pilot boat, all the way up to huge research vessels.

Astoria pilot boat. (Image courtesy of Vigor.)

As you can imagine, working on such complex projects generates a lot of paperwork and inventory. Kvichak Marine was quick to investigate the possibility of achieving a paperless factory when they heard about it.

Every boat built at Kvichak is custom. It seems that you get quite a lot of options when you have a few million bucks lying around to spend on a boat. This high degree of customization means that every design generates its own documentation and requires tracking across the entire product lifecycle.

Every single part on every single Kvichak boat is catalogued in SOLIDWORKS and Enterprise PDM.

Of course, good documentation practices aren’t just key to the success of running a paper-free operation. In many cases, Kvichak deals with a lot of emergency services and other governmental agencies. A pristine electronic paper trail is a requirement when applying for tender to these projects. Failure to comply means that Kvichak doesn’t win the contract. It’s as simple as that.

Aside from the 3D modeling capabilities within SOLIDWORKS, Kvichak found a way to cut down on construction time by designing mark lines into the 3D models of the aluminum structural parts. When the parts were manufactured, they would have the digitally precise marks transferred to the real-life parts via the manufacturing process, enabling quick assembly before welding.

Not only has Kvichak managed to go paperless, they have successfully gone tape measureless now that their parts are manufactured with the measurement guides embedded in the part.

Dixon Yacht Design

Southampton, United Kingdom, has a rich maritime history dating back to at least Roman times. Just because the city and culture is steeped in maritime tradition, it doesn’t mean that the local engineering companies aren’t moving with the times.

Dixon Yacht Design is one of the leading manufacturers of luxury yachts in the world. Their vessels sell for tens of millions of dollars—we don’t have the exact price at hand. Like most high-end engineering products, the prices are not displayed prominently on their website. It’s safe to say that the old adage, “if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it” definitely comes into play as far as super yachts are concerned.

Catamaran yacht (Image courtesy of Dixon Yacht Design.)

“We were limited by how far we could take a solid model with our previous software because it lacked the detail we needed for the computer numerical control (CNC) machining our clients use. We had to move the design back and forth between 2D and 3D applications,” said John Oates, Dixon yacht designer. “SolidWorks allows us to finish the boat design and check it for accuracy in one application. That gives us the flexibility to be more creative in how we approach different design challenges.”

All of these benefits means that Dixon Yacht Design has been able to slash 25 percent from its design time.

Westport Shipyard

Of course, there’s no point dropping the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP on a boat if it doesn’t look amazing inside as well.

Westport, Wash., is home to Westport Yachts. Not only is Westport Yachts one of the largest manufacturers of luxury composite yachts, but it also knows a thing or two about luxurious interior design.

Luxury interior rendering. (Image courtesy of Westport Yachts.)

Westport Yachts boats have tens of thousands of components in them, especially mechanical and in the interior. While these boats are tailored to the customers’ wishes, they also share some common platform elements. That is why Westport Yachts has been taking full advantage of SOLIDWORKS configuration features.

“The ability to have models in production on a continual basis, while using configurations to provide customers with choices and options on different parts of the boat—such as variations on the state room design—makes us more efficient,” said Taylor Olson, engineering manager. “It also has a positive impact on profit margins. The impact of SolidWorks software is felt not so much in terms of development time but in supporting a more cost-effective production paradigm that gives us an advantage in terms of time-to-delivery.”

Boat interior. (Image courtesy of Westport Yachts.)

And, of course, they make full use of SOLIDWORKS’ rendering capability, allowing them to show their bespoke interiors off to their discerning customers before they buy their boats.


We have taken a look at the results of using CAD in shipbuilding. Now, let’s take a look at some of the tools that can aid with ship design.

There are various add-ins for SOLIDWORKS that are tailored to streamline the design process for various different disciplines. Those working in ship design will be pleased to know that there is an add-in for shipbuilding.

Shipworks, from Portuguese CAE software company Althima, provides ship designers with a suite of tools aimed at optimizing naval vessel design workflows.

Shipworks not only allows users to design in 3D before exporting 2D drawings in nautical-friendly formats, but it also combines the industry-specific data from Shipworks with the FEA capabilities of SOLIDWORKS Simulation to run structural simulations optimized for ship design.

Althima is a SOLIDWORKS Certified Solution Partner. You can read more about their shipbuilding add-in at this link.

There we have it. Technical drawing has come full circle and returned to its shipbuilding roots. CAD is making shipbuilding faster, better and cheaper. But is that it? Is there anything else that technology can bring to this ancient engineering domain? Of course, since processes can always be improved.

Do you work in shipbuilding? What improvements to modern CAD packages do you think could help in your ship design workflows? Let us know in the comments below.

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