The global shipbuilding industry has long been dominated by Europe, but a shift toward new ship construction in Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and China is under way. A consortium of 18 international entities called FIBRESHIP EU was launched in June 2017 to ensure that Europe remains a shipbuilding leader.
“The idea of the project is to consolidate the position of the shipbuilding industry in Europe. To do that you need to bring all the stakeholders together – shipbuilders, classification societies, engineers and so on,” says Anthony Comer from the School of Engineering and the Irish Composites Centre at the University of Limerick. “Composites are going to play a central role.”
The main objective of FIBRESHIP is to develop a new European-based market for large-length seagoing and inland ships made from FRP materials. To achieve this objective, the project will do the following:
- Develop, qualify and audit innovative FRP materials for marine applications
- Establish new design and production guidelines and procedures
- Devise efficient production and inspection methodologies
- Develop new validated computational analysis tools
FIBRESHIP is one of the largest innovation projects funded by the European Union, with a budget of €11 million (nearly $13 million). Consortium partners represent 11 countries and include three classification and certification organizations, four shipyards, three research centers, four ship owners and four companies specializing in shipbuilding architecture and engineering. Comer is lead principal investigator on the project’s composites element, while his colleague from the University of Limerick, Ioannis Manolakis, serves as co-investigator and project manager.
“Our role revolves around material selection – looking at a wide range of resin systems, fiber systems and core materials,” says Comer. “This is a high-level TRL [technology readiness level] project, so we are looking at materials that are already on the market or very close to market. The aim of the project is to have these vessels in the water sooner rather than later.” At the end of the three-year FIBRESHIP project, the partners plan to have a demonstrator FRP component, as well as a knowledge base and tools that shipyards can utilize to build ships.
While the marine industry was an early adopter of composites, most FRP-intensive structures to date have been limited to pleasure boats, ferries, patrol boats and rescue boats under 50 meters long. FIRBRESHIP intends to fill in the technology and knowledge gaps to demonstrate the feasibility of using FRP materials to construct the entire hull and superstructure of ships longer than 50 meters for three vessel categories: light merchant ships, passenger transport and leisure ships, and special service vessels.
Composites offer all the expected advantages. The primary benefit is weight reduction, which yields decreased fuel consumption and increased cargo capacity. Composites also are resistant to corrosion and fatigue. Under the guidance of Comer and Manolakis, a team of four research engineers at the Irish Composites Centre will determine which particular FRP materials make the most sense for large-length vessels.
The team will select the most suitable material constituents, then manufacture test panels, extract test coupons and provide mechanical test data. The FRP materials they select will ultimately be used by a FIBRESHIP shipyard to manufacture a demonstrator component measuring approximately 8 meters cubed.
Comer’s group has just begun work on material selection. “We are trying to cast as big a net as possible and look at a wide range of resin classes, from polyester and epoxies to vinyl esters and so on,” he says. “We are even looking at some infusible thermoplastics that have fairly recently come on the market.”
Consideration of manufacturing processes is critical, too, in material selection. “We need to look at processes that are compatible with what shipyards are already using,” says Comer. “In addition, are the materials compatible with new manufacturing processes that will be coming down the line?” Liquid resin infusion is one of the candidate manufacturing processes because of the size of the components that will be produced and the suitability for use in shipyards, adds Comer.
The team at the Irish Composites Centre is making similar decisions about fibers. “Glass has traditionally been used on smaller vessels, but carbon has been creeping in recently, as well as basalt and aramid fibers,” says Comer. “Ultimately, we will look at a wide range of materials and try to come up with combinations that are deemed most suitable for applications in longer length ships.”
While Comer’s group is focused mainly on mechanical characteristics of the FRP materials, other FIBRESHIP research partners will consider fire resistance, smoke toxicity and material joining techniques. “The down selection process for materials will be challenging,” admits Comer. “There is a huge range of considerations. How do you weigh all of them accordingly and select a combination of materials you can get agreement on?”
That’s the challenge FIBRESHIP’s 18 partners have wholeheartedly taken on together. Europe accounts for approximately 40 percent of the world’s civilian and merchant shipbuilding, according to FIBRESHIP. The continent’s 150-plus large shipyards would like to retain – and even grow – that market share. So there’s a lot riding on this project, for both the shipbuilding and composites industries.
“Large-length vessels represent a potentially new market for composites,” says Comer. “It’s certainly an interesting market when you consider the vast amount of materials that would be required for vessels of this size.”