The CAD designer and the welder

The CAD designer and the welder

Fred Berghoff picks up the 9000-tonne steel structure of the ship and flips it around, examining it from every angle as easily as if it were a Rubiks cube. He takes us beneath it and pushes it away, so its hull looms over us like the belly of a blue whale passing above. Then he brings us back up so we see its full 187-metre profile, before plunging us through its steel skin and into its interior. He can rove around at will, examining details from the vast engines to the captain's chair, and even the soap dishes in the cabins.

Fred is a naval architect, not a superhero with colossal strength and X-ray vision. But the software and systems which Fred uses really do have superpowers. Over a year, Fred and ten other naval architects at the FSG shipyard in Flensburg created this incredibly detailed 3D model of Honfleur to Brittany Ferries' specification. Before the first piece of steel was cut, her 100,000 bespoke components had already been designed, and the ship had been built virtually.

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The tradition of shipbuilding in northern Germany stretches back to the late Middle Ages, when the region supplied the ships for the thriving maritime trade between the members of the Hanseatic League. The modern practice of building ships entirely from steel dates back around 80 years, and at first glance the FSG shipyard seems to have changed little in that time, with up to 50 welders at a time hand-building each ship.

But Fred's model proves that modern shipbuilding is now as advanced and complex as car or aircraft design. "When I started here 22 years ago, we still created a ship with pencils and a drawing board," he says. "But the computer-aided design software we use now has brought a generational change to shipbuilding."

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Out by the quayside Michel Bollmann is responsible for making that virtual model real. Aged just 31 and from the nearby maritime town of Kiel, he's already a production manager responsible for teams of welders. He followed his father into shipbuilding, and feels an intense sense of pride in what the region produces. "My mission is just to build ships," he says. "I get to follow the whole process, from the first steel cut, to when the hull is launched, and finally to when we watch the finished ship disappear from view as she sails away. That makes me so proud."

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He says that it's still hard, heavy work. "But technology has transformed the way we make the ships, as well as the way we design them. We're faster and more efficient. But I'd still say we hand-build them. We have some incredibly advanced automated welding machines now, for example. But they're still controlled by an experienced welder. And the majority is still done by hand.

Naval architect Fred has the greatest respect for colleagues on the quayside. "They can make a 12-metre weld by hand to an accuracy of just a millimetre or two. That's incredible. If you scale it down, that's the sort of accuracy a watchmaker works to. We're building 9,000 tonne ships to the same standards as a Swiss watch."

 

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