Working with the virtual world

Monday, October 10, 2016

Working with the virtual world

“It’s a new way of doing things, but it’s clear to me that it’s going to become the standard way of designing ships over the next few years,” says Robert J. Spencer, Knud E. Hansen"

The Naval Architect

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.”