And it's redefining the art of ship making.
There is currently a war underway between Britain, Italy and Spain. Each hope to win a $35 billion tender to produce ships for the Commonwealth Government’s Future Frigate (SEA 5000) program; a group of naval ships that will replace our current Anzac Fleet.
Last week Britain cut steel on the first of these new frigates for its own Royal Navy, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship. BAE Systems have been at the helm of these new ships, as well as the cutting edge technology behind their development.
BAE is a global defence, aerospace and security contracting company and has been operating in Australia for over sixty years.
The cornerstone of the Type 26 development has been BAE's Visualisation Suite; a state-of-the-art digital design tool that would replace the old 'paper ship' method of ship design.
At a recent demonstration of the new system at BAE Systems in Canberra, Engineering Director Brad Yelland explained the new technology.
"The entire design of the ship is digitised. The core digital backbone sits as the source of truth of the ship. We can then use that to build up through different tools; visualisation tools, configuration control tools. We can keep control over the maturing design all the way through the life of the design of the ship."
This revolutionary technology will completely change the way in which shipbuilding is implemented, particularly from an engineering and construction perspective.
In the past, veteran shipyard workers would be heavily relied upon to identify potential production problems. For example, if there was a consistent problem with a particular plate weld.
When it comes to design, general diagrams are usually printed. As design changes come through, they get clipped to the general assembly drawing. Unsurprisingly, this makes consistency near-impossible. Variations begin to occur quickly.
It also meant that often, issues aren't picked up until production is well under way.
These older approaches allow for a large margin of error. BAE's Visualisation Suite has closed this gap, streamlined processes and reduced potential issues. Ideally, they are picked up in the design phase, which saves a substantial amount of time and money.
This is achieved through laser scans of the parts that go into the ship, which are then brought together in the suite. All of the information for each part is stored, and it goes far beyond the weight and dimensions. Maintenance suites, logistic information, parts breakdown numbers, serving schedules and more can be brought up at anytime.
"Now we can put the laser scan of the part on the digital design of the rest of the ship and look for problem areas... It allows us to solve these problems very quickly and then build the changes back into the digital model so the next one that comes along addresses all the issues," said Yelland.
One of the key aims of the SEA 5000 program is to create continuous Navy shipbuilding capability in Australia. The government is focusing particularly on creating jobs and economic growth.
BAE believes that their Visualisation Suite will also address this concern. "This tool allows us to very quickly allow supplies from the Australian supply chain introduce designs of their products. We can assess them and understand what we need to do."
In their recent VS demonstration, BAE used the aforementioned Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the model, and it's hoping that it will help them win the tender.
What makes the Type 26 ships special is that they're multi-mission frigates which specialise in Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW).
Stealth is built into every aspect of these ships, from the hull design to mechanical dampening to vibration reduction. All of the major equipment is kept off the decks and bulkheads of the ship and even the pipes are designed to reduce noise that are associated with fluids and change in air direction.
Surface Combatant Business Development Manager Peter Osbourne described why this is a game changer for the Navy.
“It's a discriminator because... with a silent ship you’re effectively out there undetected from a submarine’s perspective. They’re not going to hear you unless you’re making noise.
"Under certain conditions, have quite substantial detection ranges against submarines, especially some of the older ones and certainly against nukes. What it does create though is uncertainty for the operation of submarines. They really don’t want to be detected.
If this is potentially out there , operating silently with a passive array... then you’re stealthily out there. [You're] an unknown factor from the submarines perspective, which massively complicates their battle problem."
If any equipment does get too noisy, there are acoustic sensors built into the platform to measure the levels. It can then trace the problem area, even if it is something as small and unassuming as a loose fitting.
Every piece of kit on board has a noise budget, the information of which is also stored in the Visualisation Suite.
"It’s an approach to noise hygiene that until now you’ve only seen in submarines," stated Osbourne.
This approach also means that designers and engineers can work with suppliers during the design phase to build parts that fit the noise budget requirements. The same goes for weight and space.
"This is a level of detail I have never seen before in a ship design program," Yelland said. "It’s really about what we can do with it in the future. We have the potential to exploit this to the point where we never have to repeat [some] problems again."
Air Marshal D.J.S Riding concurred. "This is literally going to transform the way the Navy operates, maintains, upgrades a major service combatant."
He continues, "In the next twenty... to forty years more than half the world’s submarines with be in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia's trade routes are absolutely fundamental to our national prosperity.
Antisubmarine warfare is the key capability that Australia can provide to either its own task forces or in coalition task forces to ensure that the potential threat from a submarine environment can be counteracted."
If BAE procures the SEA 5000 tender, we'll be seeing them silently slide into Australian waters by the late 2020s. We're expected to find out who will win sometime in 2018.
In the meantime, ship nerds can keep an eye on the Royal Navy in Britain to see if the BAE Visualisation Suite and the Type 26 ships live up to its promises.