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Working with the virtual world

The Naval Architect: October 2016

The virtual world and its benefits are already leveraged by industries ranging from healthcare to space travel, but, as might be expected, the maritime industry is playing catch up with the current pace of technological change. That is to say, up until now.

A software team from Knud E. Hansen, combining the practical shipbuilding experience of naval architects with the technological expertise of programmers, launched what it believes to be the first virtual reality (VR) design tool of its kind at SMM in September.

The tool, named ShipSpace, allows designers and other players in the design process to experience the space of a ship to scale using the CAD data from a vessel’s 3D model.

Its developers envisage serious benefits for naval architects and shipowners, simultaneously improving designs and the design process. Robert J. Spencer, head of simulation products at Knud E. Hansen and Ken Goh, general manager of Knud E. Hansen’s Australian branch, highlight three significant areas of improvement for architects.

“The first is just getting a really good sense of scale…I’d summarise [it] as just better spatial reasoning,” says Spencer. “When you’re looking at a monitor, even when you know the dimensions, you really can’t understand [or] get a visceral feeling for the scale of things. You can know, yes, that’s 20cm or that’s 8m, but until you’re actually out in a space that has an 8m ceiling, you don’t really grasp what that means. And so, by getting that more visceral understanding in your bones of how big a space is, [it] just helps to make sure you can optimise it.”

Spencer believes the tool will consequently avoid mistakes but will also allow designers to minimise spaces. In other words, if a room feels sufficiently sized when it is experienced in VR, designers will avoid the impulse to enlarge what seems to be too small on paper; they can test the real environment for themselves.

Goh adds: “Lots of areas on the ship are quite complicated in shape, and it’s quite hard to understand, even from a computer monitor, what these shapes are like until you’re actually in that space and can see, oh, this sloped surface here, we can’t put some piece of equipment on that. And that helps to optimise the ability to utilise space in a ship.”

The second significant area is communication. Communication in and between different design teams – even those that are working in 3D – is challenging when referring to different parts of a CAD model and their location. “There’s a lot of coordination that’s messy,” says Spencer. “Whereas with ShipSpace, you [different designers] can both be in the same space, looking at the same things; you can point and say: ‘this thing.’”

This ultimately simplifies the process for designers, but also makes the design of a vessel more accessible to those that can’t read plans.

The third benefit, domain expertise, ties into this idea by empowering non-designers with an active role in the design process. Spencer hypothesises an example of designing a galley: “An engineer can educate themselves well enough to design a galley, but engineers aren’t known for their culinary expertise.” A chef on the other hand can’t read a plan, but they can tell you what is needed for a galley. “With ShipSpace you can get a chef, you can put them in their galley, and he can stand there and say: ‘No, I’m standing here with a frying pan and I can’t reach where it now has to go; I need to be able to stand in one place and move this from there to there,’” says Spencer.

“Normally these sorts of things happen afterwards, where they’ll create a mock-up or fly-through, or something like that, and then say: ‘is this ok?’ At which point you can pretty much guarantee that they’re going to go, it’s ok...because at that stage it’s too expensive to go back and start changing things.”

It is by moving this incorporation of domain expertise further forward in the design cycle that Knud E. Hansen believes its system will reduce design risk and add substantial value to the achieved end product. Even now, some owners have to spend another couple of hundred thousand dollars on brand new ships that haven’t even seen full service yet to rectify areas that don’t work, explains Goh.

While the cost of the licence to use the system is not disclosed, Goh says: “The cost of people employing this system for their design and making sure, getting domain experts in to advise those issues, the cost of actually using [the] system is insignificant compared to what can be saved.”

The rate of production is also sure to improve, according to Goh, especially when it comes to resolving clashes and things like pipe runs. “3D modellers often have to design their systems separately from each other…and then they all think, oh you’re going to get this over you and I’m going to go over here and sometimes they have to cross, and then it’s often left to production to sort out the interfaces and also the clashes they find.

“An evolution, or a way to be able to use this tool, is to be able to resolve those clashes – communicate with members of them in a 3D environment. We’ve been doing experimentations of moving things around in the virtual space, which we think is going to be very valuable as a design tool for both designers and the shipyard in the future.”

In addition, any segment of the shipbuilding market that has a strong requirement to impress with visualisation, such as luxury yachts or cruiseships, will be able to leverage this tool to their advantage with clientele.

The virtual mechanism
Any 3D model can be inputted into the system, according to Spencer. “So, when the ship is designed – so long as it is designed in 3D, and a 3D model comes out of it – it doesn’t matter what package it’s been developed in, we can export the 3D data from that design package [and] import it into our system.”

A decision was reached early on in the development of the platform to make sure ShipSpace was compatible with pre-existing CAD software and acted as an additional tool rather than as a separate entity that designers would have to radically adapt to. Spencer clarifies: “If we make [architects] have to make a second model that destroys the point – being able to use the models that they’re working with is, to us, the most valuable thing.”

The logic to this decision, more than simply maintaining as wide a market as possible, is further explained by the appreciation that “there are a lot of very specialised CAD tools out there that designers have become very familiar with, and are very fast and efficient; and a mouse and pointer is still the most efficient, fastest and most accurate way of specifying things – we don’t want to change that. However, it is not the best way of visualising things, so we’re adding that visualisation step.”

Questioned about the fact many yards still do not use 3D models, the pair suggested the development of a functioning virtual reality tool would encourage those that were either reluctant to make the change or on the verge of making the change to 3D models. “I can say that it is pushing people that have been thinking about 3D and saying: ‘no it’s not worth it, our people are faster in 2D,’” states Spencer, “[as] now there’s this clear benefit – working in 3D you can actually see what you’re doing.”

The software suite ultimately acts as a new stage in the design process, and Spencer emphasises that the virtual model is not a specially created VR version; it is created based on the real design data. It works by exporting the data from any of the main CAD tools into an intermediary format that the virtual reality model can be created from. If a CAD system is discovered that cannot be exported from, Knud E. Hansen says it has the capability to create a new exporter.

In terms of system requirements for any would-be users, the system that displays the reality is very powerful, and as such is provided by Knud E. Hansen. But beyond this addition there is no change, according to Spencer, as the designers are simply using their standard tools.

To date, no limit has been found to version one of ShipSpace in terms ship size or complexity, although Spencer jests: “I’m sure there is one, but I’m not sure there are any vessels that are that big.”

To put this in perspective, Goh explains that the trial version presented at SMM of an Antarctic research vessel is one of the most complicated vessels that Knud E. Hansen has designed, and features one of their most complicated 3D models too. “All the details, even from bolts round the bottom of cranes – we haven’t taken any of that information out, it’s been put into the system,” says Goh. This is certainly the case, and, as experienced during The Naval Architect’s very own trial, this level of detail was clearly visible. Spencer explains that the system has 600million polygons which allow it to function at this high level.

The system was very easy to use and intuitively allowed the user to access most areas of the ship using a handheld controller that could be seen in the virtual reality model. This worked in two ways, either allowing movement within sight, for example moving along a corridor by moving a circular pointer to where you wished to stand and then “teleporting” with a click, but also by accessing “orbs” that would relocate the user to a section of the ship that was further away. 

Future developments
The two designers are mindful that the system is only version one and development is set to continue, opening up new design opportunities. For example, use of the system will move even further forward in the design cycle, with the potential to make some concept designs in 3D instead of 2D. In addition, using the design tool throughout a ship’s evolution will aid in the resolution of clashes with the yard and can help to familiarise crew with a vessel before its delivery; “operational development and training is actually one of the areas of use that owners are actually very interested in with virtual reality technology,” says Goh.

Interest in the tool has been diverse, continues Goh: “We’ve had interest from areas that we didn’t even think about…because this technology is so new that really we’re opening the door to the technology into the maritime industry, and even in all aspects of where virtual reality is starting to make an impact in the rest of industry, people are only just getting the concept and putting their own ideas about how it could be used, so this is going to be a common way to develop things within 2 to 5 years.”