Aug 24, 2023

Launching a fleet revival at Seaspan

Here we see progress made on the Joint Support Ship in early May 2023. Seaspan

Streamlining operations in any shop can be a challenge, but when you’re part of a large shipbuilding operation, determining where efficiencies can be found and how to execute them is particularly difficult. However, Seaspan Vancouver Shipyards has managed to find smart methods for project staging, as well as investing in automation where it offers its operations the best return on investment.

The work that Seaspan is doing at its Vancouver Shipyards is part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), which was launched in June 2010. The NSS is a long-term, multibillion-dollar commitment to renew Canada’s federal fleet. It involves three shipyards: Seaspan, which is building a variety of non-combat vessels; Irving, which is constructing combat vessels; and Chantier Davie, which has been brought on for the building of a number of icebreakers.

The purpose of the NSS is to help build and maintain an effective federal fleet for maritime security and services, while maximizing economic benefits across the country. It is designed to avoid the typical boom and bust cycle that characterizes the traditional approach to shipbuilding.

At a recent presentation at Metalworking & Manufacturing Expo in Langley, B.C., Dan Southern, director, workforce development at Vancouver Shipyards, showed the audience how the company’s scheduled build program will maintain work on new ships past 2040.

Three vessels from the offshore fisheries science vessels project have already been brought into service from Seaspan’s operations. The first vessel, CCGS Sir John Franklin, entered service in June 2019 followed by the second ship, CCGS Capt. Jacques Cartier, in December 2019. The final ship, CCGS John Cabot, was presented to the coast guard in October 2020.

Although these were successful launches, strategically it was important for Seaspan to continue to invest in its value stream to improve efficiencies in its processes to keep future projects on track. Throughout 2021 and 2022, the company invested more than $27 million to increase its capability and capacity. New construction work has benefitted from these investments in technology and infrastructure.

Currently, three ships are under construction at Seaspan Shipyards. The first Joint Support Ship (JSS) that the company is building for the Royal Canadian Navy is “fully consolidated,” Southern noted, and the second JSS began construction in May. Significant work has also been completed on an Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel (OOSV) for the Canadian Coast Guard.

Corey Lutes, director, manufacturing at Seaspan Shipyards, noted that “the best shipyards in the world will produce maybe 60 hulls a year.”

But working on the NSS is a different proposition altogether.

“The programs we are working on for our customer are quite bespoke, very mission-specific to what the Navy and Coast Guard need,” he noted. “There are a lot of unique details that add to the complexity and therefore add to the overall cycle time.”

The sub-assembly shop includes this automated Suprarex gantry plasma cutting table, robotic profile cutting, an automated welding T-beam line, and a micro-panel robotic welding line. The typical plate size processed on this table is 40 by 10 ft., and the bars are 40 ft. long. Seaspan

To reduce cycle times and improve the overall takt time, Seaspan breaks down the ships into smaller components to really focus on how to improve the overall takt time of those smaller components to ultimately build the ship faster.

The design starts by identifying the client needs regarding ship missions and operability areas; then ship design starts by defining the ship’s main dimensions, ship hull form, general arrangement, and all associated systems, such as propulsion, piping, HVAC, electrical, and dedicated missions system. All of these are integrated in a 3D model environment from which the production drawings are extracted and provided to production.

“Real estate is at a premium, so design maturity is critical from the start,” said Lutes. “It usually takes about a year to develop this sort of model. Everything from structure, piping systems, electrical, cable tray, and major equipment is included in the model. We minimize as much change as possible prior to beginning construction.”

The ship’s design dictates how its smaller components can be broken out for fabrication. One block is typically a full beam breadth, ranging from 20 to 24 m by 12 m long.

“Construction generally has the blocks inverted to promote effective execution of the work down-hand rather than doing everything overhead,” said Lutes. “It’s much more ergonomic and efficient.”

“As the product gets bigger and we see it through the yard, we end up becoming very reliant on our workforce,” noted Lutes. “We try to automate as much as possible at the earlier stages of construction. But ultimately, given the size and scale of the project, we are still very dependent on the skilled labour force. So there’s also a lot of emphasis on how to get our labour force to be more efficient and effective as well.”

While the company has added automation to increase the speed of production, it also has done so to improve quality and, overall, “reduce the potential for safety incidents” for its workforce, Lutes explained. “If we can remove a substantial amount of work that they are having to do on their hands and knees and add automation that supports them, that leads to a much lower rate of ergonomic or long-term injuries.”

To improve work efficiency in areas where full automation isn’t possible, the company has adopted the use of tractor welders and orbital pipe welding devices.

“An operator is still running this equipment, but they are doing so at a distance from the weld,” said Lutes.

The production area of the shipyard is laid out in such a way that production flow, from raw material to the ship erection berth and from sub-assembly to pre-outfitting, is as straight of a line as possible.

A part comes off Seaspan’s automated welding T-beam line, one of the machines that helps with the company’s up-front automation efforts. Ryan McLeod

The first key efficiency in the fabrication process is the colour coding of the steel that arrives on site. Steel is brought into the yard with a different coloured, weldable primer coating based on which ship it will be used on.

“Every piece of steel starts to look the same, so this is an added help to ensure that materials are guided to the correct jobs,” said Lutes.

Most automation is focused on three buildings—the sub-assembly, panel, and forming shops. This is where much of the automation investment has occurred over the past few years. Given that the company typically processes between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of steel per year, this is no small feat.

The sub-assembly shop includes automated plasma plate cutting, robotic profile cutting, an automated welding T-beam line, and a micro-panel robotic welding line.

“All the steel we use on the ship goes through our HGG robotic profile cutting and plate cutting area,” said Lutes. “The Suprarex gantry plasma cutting table was part of our new investment, and the typical plate size we process is 40 by 10 ft., and the bars are 40 ft. long.

“The T-beam and PEMA micro-panel line were also recent investments. These are both common assemblies on the ship, so it made sense to automate them,” he continued. “The T-beams are a common stiffening member for the decks. This machine has a dual-head welding system and has an induction heater to prevent the distortion that might be caused from the welding process itself.”

“The micro-panel line has a fully robotic head on it. It has an optical sensor that will scan the product and sense the weld joints, and then the robotic head has the ability to weld in flat and vertical positions on simpler assemblies.”

The next process, which Lutes explains is the shop’s largest repeatable product, is the panel line. In this area, large flat panels (each of which are 12 by 12 m) are fed through a milling system that preps the plates for a one-sided submerged arc weld which will weld two panels together. The panel line is on a roller table. Also on the roller table is a Telerex plasma cutting machine, which does a perimeter cut of the welded deck panels. It also marks out the layout for structure, pipe supports, electrical supports, and anything else that will be tacked and welded into the deck.

“This last step significantly reduces manual layout needs,” said Lutes. “On the same roller table, bars are placed and tacked into position using the Stiffener Mounting Portal. Moving down the line, the Stiffener Welding Portal has six welding machines that will weld three bars simultaneously on the panels.”

The bulkheads and the T-beams will then be installed in this shop.

Here we see a partial view of two “blocks” under construction. One block is typically a full beam breadth, ranging from 20 to 24 m by 12 m long. Ryan McLeod

“That’s a purely manual process at this point,” said Lutes. “These will be combined in a block shop a couple steps beyond this.”

The profile and plate forming shop is equipped with a Nieland three-point frame bender and a Nieland 1,000-ton press.

“This is where all of our profiles and our plates are formed,” said Lutes. “We build sightline templates out of plywood to ensure that we’re maintaining the form, so we can check the shape of the plate as we’re progressing.”

Once material starts coming from the forming, plate, and sub-assembly shops, the consolidation of single blocks begins to take place.

“A typical product that we’ll see here will be 20- to 24-ft. blocks, a single deck high with side shells,” said Lutes. “Everything remains inverted for effective installation on the deck head.”

From block assembly, the block moves on to pre-outfit, where a significant amount of pipe installation, equipment modules, and electrical hookup cables get run together.

“The reason we try to do as much outfitting at this stage is that it’s an open space, we have crane access, and they are not confined by another block,” said Dan Southern. “If we can do it earlier on, we try to.”

From there, grand block erection starts to take place.

“At this stage, we need to ensure that everything is going to fit together like a puzzle, so we have accuracy control hold points throughout the build process to maintain tolerances and minimize rework during consolidation,” said Lutes.

Once structural consolidation is done, the team goes in and begins outfitting that consolidation zone. The JSS that is now fully consolidated had up to 700 employees working on it through the summer.

Here we see the system used to flip and lift blocks into place on each vessel. Ryan McLeod

“This reinforces the people side of what we are doing at Seaspan,” said Lutes. “We are still very people dependent.”

Between steps, blocks are moved using self-propelled modular transporters, another way in which automation helps lessen the risk of injury.

To support the manufacturing process, as well as training, Seaspan has created a Welding Centre of Excellence at its North Vancouver operations. For training, it has a selection of 24 weld booths, four of which are specialty booths.

“We can move all of the welding tables out, use the shop’s 10-ton overhead crane, and teach ship fitting in the space,” said Southern. “We have our pipe fitting crews come here to learn proper edge bevelling. We also do pipe welding training and qualifications and all our welder recertifications.”

Equally important is the welding research that is done in the centre’s metallurgy lab. The lab is a place where the company can prove out its own welding processes, analyzing its work to ensure that it exceeds CWB and ship classification standards. The lab is equipped with equipment for hardness testing, Charpy tests, and chemical analysis. It also has a freezer so that tests can be run for polar applications, such as testing welds for polar vessels. This is critical, as the steel grades for those applications are so different from others.

What’s key for the Seaspan team is that this allows them to turn tests around in a matter of two weeks, whereas it would have taken much longer if they had to depend on outside testing support.

In the interests of expanding its research efforts, Seaspan has also invested in a research chair at BCIT.

“We are investing in the chair and BCIT to support advancements across the broader industry,” said Southern. “We hope that the research and findings will create positive change for the next generation of shipbuilders.”

Next month, we’ll take a deep dive into Seaspan’s recruitment and retention efforts.

Editor Robert Colman can be reached at [email protected].

Seaspan Vancouver Shipyards,