The shipbuilding sector is involved with the construction of ships and other floating vessels, which normally takes place at a shipyard. The roots of shipbuilding go back thousands of years and can be seen right across the world.
Shipbuilding and repair, whether commercial or military, comes under the category of ‘naval engineering,’ with ship repairs being an integral activity that must be undertaken under the supervision of a classification society. This maintenance can happen while at sea or in port, but larger repair operations can only happen at ship repair yards or dry docks.
Ship design, or ‘naval architecture,’ was once done by loftsmen who would take the design details from plans and translate them into templates, cutting sketches and other data. Today’s ship designs and lofting processes are done using computer aided design (CAD).
Modern shipbuilding tends to use prefabricated sections, with sections of the hull or superstructure being built elsewhere and then assembled at the building dock. This technique, called ‘block construction,’ may also involve equipment such as pipes, cables, and other smaller components being installed into each block to minimise the amount of work required once the various blocks have been joined.
Since around 1940, most ships have been built from welded steel, although some of these earlier ships suffered from catastrophic failures. Constance Tipper from Cambridge University famously investigated the problem and found that the fractures causing the ships to break apart were not related to the welds, but rather a result of low temperature embrittlement of the steel itself. This discovery led to specialised steels that did not suffer from temperature embrittlement, such as ABS Steels, being used for ship construction.
The shipbuilding industry has ties to many other industries, such as marine engineering, offshore industries and defence. Shipbuilding is concerned with the production of large, mainly ocean-going vessels for either merchant or military purposes.
The industry is supported by product and service providers for the maintenance, conversion and eventual decommissioning of the vessels.
Today’s major shipbuilding companies are mostly in the Far East, and include the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries and Imabari Shipbuilding, who main global suppliers of bulk carrier vessels, large container ships, tankers, and Ro-ro ships.
Shipbuilding is a cyclical and capital intensive industry where fleet expansion can have dramatic effects on a shipping line. Shipping lines can generally be divided into cruise lines (carrying passengers) and freight lines (carrying cargo). Of the various types of ships, tankers make up the largest segment with regards to tonnage. In 2019, the industry built around 15,000 tankers, with a combined gross tonnage of 13 million. This compares with cruise ships, which, during the same time, saw just 773,000 tonnes of ships built.
Shipbuilding is used provide large ships to serve both merchant and military maritime needs. This includes the building of container and cargo ships, passenger ships and naval vessels.
Shipbuilders, also known as shipwrights, have been part of human history for thousands of years, with evidence of ships hulls dating back to Ancient Egypt in 3100 BC and Egyptian pottery as old as 4000 BC showing designs for early boats.
Modern shipbuilding usually takes place in a shipyard and can be completed by joining pre-assembled parts of a vessel together on-site.
Different nations have been famous for their shipbuilding over the centuries, but modern industrial shipbuilding has suffered in those nations with high labour costs where government subsidies have been removed.
A decline has occurred in shipbuilding over the past 50 years across Europe, but it still remains a dynamic centre for commercial shipbuilding, with around 150 large shipyards employing around 120,000 people in the EU. Europe maintains around 6% of the market share in terms of tonnage, with the industry remaining important in a number of countries, contributing to regional industrial infrastructures as well as national defence and security interests. Shipbuilding across Europe primarily focusses on the building of complex vessels including cruise ships, ferries, luxury yachts and naval vessels.
In the United States, the Jones Act was introduced, placing restrictions on the ships that can be used to move domestic cargo. This has offered some protection for merchant shipbuilding in the U.S., although contract prices remain high, especially when compared to the competition in Japan, China and South Korea.
China, Japan and South Korea were the major shipbuilding nations in 2019, with China, for example, completing 22.3 million gross tonnes of ships that year. These nations remain the leading countries for today’s global shipbuilding output.