Learning to Design Ships - A Post Mortem
***Disclaimer*** This post is not meant to be a definitive guide on how to become proficient in the design of ships or yachts. It will be biased with my perspective and experiences throughout the past seven years of learning and practicing the design of commercial vessels. I have worked on a few yacht projects but have extensively been employed by commercial ship design firms. I am writing this because the 'me' seven years ago would have loved to read something like this (and discuss it at length with his college friends).
For one reason or another some of us gravitate towards design. Whether we use the products we wish to design or just have an interest, it becomes a hobby, dream or goal. The 'it' being to design things that float. Naval Architecture, and more so yacht design, is a sexy combination of words. It makes that random encounter with a person a little more satisfying when you tell them what you do and their eyes light up. If I can say one thing about a career in ship or yacht design, it is not common.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of my perspective on the marine design industry I will give a brief breakdown of where that perspective comes from.
- Completed the Naval Architecture program at 'The Marine Institute of the Memorial University of Newfoundland'.
- Worked as an intern with the Canadian Coast Guard in procurement services during a summer.
- Since graduating have worked in Commercial Ship Design firms doing a variety of tasks including structural engineering, structural lofting, hydrostatic analysis, outfit design, general arrangement design and many other tasks that arise with respect to the design of a ship.
- I have worked on a total of 26 different designs including aluminum fast supply vessels, tugs, ferries, platform supply vessels, yachts, fishing vessels and a CNG.
Section 1 - The Golden Key
Prior to enrolling in college I did extensive research as to which academic institution I should attend. I remember the feeling that my life hinged on what program I decided upon. That maybe some institution was hiding the professor that would instill the secret knowledge of ship design, or as I have come to call it now, the 'Golden Key', upon me.
While academic institutions most definitely vary in quality, do not be lured into a false sense that one will provide a large difference over another. At a masters or doctoral level this may be true, but if you are interested in becoming a designer of ships and not an academic specialist, the building blocks of a successful career is a base understanding of all the elements that make up the design of ships.
The onus to learn these things will primarily rest on your shoulders. The 'Golden Key' of becoming a great designer is right between your shoulder blades. When choosing a school make sure it is reputable, within your budget and feels comfortable for you. Common sense applies.
Here is a list of the academic institutions which I have physically met or worked with its alumnus.
- Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland
- Memorial University of Newfoundland
- Webb Institute
- University of Michigan
- University of New Orleans
- University of Strathclyde
- University of Southhampton
- Texas A&M
- University of Washington
- SUNY Maritime College
- Multiple good men and women who studied the craft at one of the finest learning institutions, the Shipyard. Their experience has been invaluable to the success of every project I have been apart of.
*Note: Some of those schools don't have specific Naval Architecture programs. There are quite a few mechanical/electrical engineers working on the design of ships.
Section 2 - You want me to do what?
I remember showing up to school bright eyed the first day expecting an in-depth orientation on, well, how awesome boats were. Instead I got a lot of foundation courses in math, science, communication and the basic tools required for learning how to even understand what I needed to learn. Admittedly I thought I'd be doing more 'choosing the colour of a wall' than learning what a bulb flat was and how to calculate which one was needed in a specific scenario. I had not done enough research on what it was to actually design a ship. I was fortunate that my skill sets played nicely into those surprises but for a lot of my comrades in learning, it did not. Many people failed or dropped out.
My Opinion on the Basic Skill Sets Required for Success
- Must be computer literate.
- Willingness to put the time into learning math
- Ability to spacial reason (How things go together)
- Ability to work hard and concentrate
- Ability to expertly read technical documents in the language of your post secondary institution.
Things you can do/learn at home before to prepare yourself
- Learn AutoCAD. We have a plethora of information available to us, in the form of the internet, that is filled with tutorials galore. There is no excuse for not being able to invest time to learn how to draft.
- Learn Rhino or equivalent 3D software. The design world is going to 3D with or without you. Many people I know have built successful careers on doing primarily work in 3D and climbed the ladder quite quickly. (Mostly because other people cannot do 3D work in their respective firm.)
- Go through a math or physics text book. Universities don't have secret textbooks. A lot, but I'll admit not all, of the books are available online or at a local bookstore.
- Learn about ship terminology and different types of ships.
- Try and find engineering drawings to look at.
- If you live in an area with a design firm, ask for a tour!
Section 3 - The Pigeon Hole
When I think of filmmaking I think of a romantic idea of Steven Spielberg literally making the movie all himself. He's the guy who gets an Oscar, he's the man to makes the movie, right? Wrong. There are a team of people supporting him, lighting the set, getting him coffee, answering his phones, shooting the camera, etc. I'll bet a good many of those people thought they would be doing what Steven Spielberg was doing and didn't even know their job existed when they first got into movies.
Design is the same way. For every one person that designs a hull there is team of people who need to fill it with stuff. For every one person that inclines a boat, there are people who pound through stability run files for hours and hours. For every exciting mid-stream design change there is the person that has to spend hours, days and sometimes weeks making those changes happen. For every cool design feature there are dozens of ordinary doors, hatches, beams, frames, drains, safety regulations and other design work that needs to be completed.
What you, most likely, think designing a ship entails is, most likely, wrong. I know I was about 168 degrees wrong before I started.
The Disciplines of Designing A Ship
- The design of all the internal structure required. Calculations or Finite Element Analysis is used to determine size and placement. Most commercial vessels and some larger yachts use a regulatory agency, such as American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), that defines the sizing of members in formulae that are simplified to basic variables. I believe these rules are available freely online.
- The communication of an approved design to the Shipyard fabricating the boat in production drawings. Much like the drawings you get with an Ikea dresser, ships are broken down into simplified sections that communicate to the yard which pieces are assembled and how.
- The design of all the items within a vessel pertaining to habitably and use. Stairs, doors, hatches, windows, mooring equipment, masts, lighting, ceilings, joiner panels, floor coverings, false floors, fire zone insulation, etc...
- The design of the electrical components onboard a vessel
- The design of all the internal items required for the ships systems to function properly. This includes the main engines, generator sets, fuel systems, potable water systems, etc. These are generally designed to regulatory approval.
- The output of arrangement and diagrams to the shipyard fabricating the vessel.
- The design of the hull
- Hydrostatic, Longitudinal Bending and Hydrodynamic analysis. Most smaller vessels just confirm hydrostatic stability with the output of a stability booklet.
- Speed and powering
- General Arrangement of the vessel
- Most items which pertain to general operations of the vessel, tankage, etc...
This is just a brief overview of what is all involved in the design of most ships. Obviously no one person, except on really small craft, is going to be able (or have the experience required) to do everything. Shipbuilding and design is a game of teamwork.
Some firms will give you a chance to do a breadth of design. Some firms will let you do a multitude of things within a discipline. Some firms will want you to pump out drawing after drawing of much the same thing. Like everything in life, it depends where you work.
*Sidenote: Some of the best experience I have gotten has been doing the same thing until I got it down to an instinct. It kills your soul very slowly and painfully though. At least for me. Some people love being pigeon holed though.
Section 4 - 'Happy Thoughts' Don't Pay My Rent
Designing ships is a pretty good paying job. People working on the design of vessels and rigs pertaining to the oil industry make the most.
What you can most likely expect after an undergraduate education is to make roughly 50-75k/year. Depending on whether you go staff or contract, your location, etc. People that are self taught or come from a shipyard background can vary quite a bit. Anywhere from 12/hr and up.
It should be noted that the design of ships and boats are really centered around 'hubs'. This is not a career if you want to stay close to Mom and Dad, or your fiancÚ is set on living in your home town forever. Almost everybody I know in the industry has had to have moved, often vast distances, in order to be educated or fulfill their desire to work on a specific project or advance in their career. This can be one of the best things about the career and one of the worst. There aren't a lot of places or people doing this stuff. The industry is small and spread out.
Also. Shipyards often aren't in the sexiest neighbourhoods or locations. With waterfront property at a premium you will most likely be spending your time in some 'not so trendy' places. Design firms can vary greatly.
Section 5 - My Final 'Two Cents'
I can honestly say that I won't be designing ships my entire life. While to some this may invalidate a lot of what I have written, I hope others can see it as just an honest ending.
I, like many other people, was chasing the dream of expressing my creative soul through the ancient craft of Naval Architecture. Instead I have acquired a good skill set in approaching problems logically, getting things done efficiently and taught my brain to think in ways I never thought possible.
I think as people get older and more experienced they start to be more honest with themselves. My career has been great to me but ultimately I want to go in a different direction.
That being said. There is a great career ahead of anybody who has the attitude, willingness and perseverance to learn it. Will you be the next top yacht designer? Maybe. Will you get to learn some cool stuff and push yourself to a level you never thought possible? Absolutely.
Thanks for a very thoughtful post!
that I could stand the legal paperwork required to be an actual NA, but I
have not regretted one minute of being involved on the periphery of the
profession. There is enough art, maths, computing and physics to fill many
lifetimes of fascinating work and play.
All the best for your new career!
Good advice. I did engineering design of cars, not ships, but what you talk about would also apply to the car design.
A couple of non-technical skills which can be very important in an engineering design career:
- Presentation preparation and delivery
- Ability to work with people, particularly people with different personalities and backgrounds
- Fundamentals of economics
- Fundamentals of marketing
Aluminum welding is like sex. The first few times you had at it, you probably could barely please yourself, but with practice and some guidance, you managed to impress one or two prom dates. ~PAR
Though a few brave soles have built pleasure boats larger than about 30 ft by themselves, it is pretty rare that they do. Same is true with design I suspect. Not that it can not be done, it is just a rare individual that is willing to make the effort, learn all the required expertise in all areas, and actually complete the design.
I limit my designs to about 16 ft, with my personal limit about 24-26ft, most because I am afraid I would never finish the design, let alone ever build it. I have designed and built some 14 or so boats, largest being about 18 ft, most 16 ft or less, all paddle, sail or oar powered (no motors). The design of simple craft is simple, fast and a fun creative exercise, the design of a 40 foot deep water cruiser would be large emotional burden I likely would never finish. Nor could I afford to build.
Honestly, most naval engineers, architects and builders are severely underpaid for the knowledge, responsibility and hard work they do They love what they do, but it is surely not a great career to get into. But if it is what you love...
Good read, but you missed out that it also has to be fun, if you have the DNA of a shipbuilder (In the blood) you will enjoy, you should have a natural passion for what you are doing, and to me there is nothing like being part of the build of something that slips down into the water and then almost becomes a living thing to all the poeple who will then sail,live work and trust there life's on her.
And always remember as you say above it takes many,many skilled and not so skilled people to produce a vessel that you are proud to say that you had a hand in that, and you are never to old to learn.
"Fairline" A line that is pleasing to the eye!
Its like asking five cooks to prepare lunch. They can all do it, but the one you want to do the work is the one who is really interested in the job.
Trying to get an NA to produce a great result who has no interest, faith or commitment to the task, is like asking a teenager to take the garbage out - it will get done but it takes forever, and will be done badly.
I wish the OP well in his new endeavors.
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