We are more than used to boarding ferries in our trucks and vans, but have you ever thought about how that ship got there?
The construction of ships is almost as old as time, however nowadays it’s a far more sophisticated system than the whittling of rafts out of logs and rope. Ferries are typically constructed in a shipyard and are almost entirely made from welded steel by builders called shipwrights. Shipwrights are specialists in the trade known as ‘naval engineering’.
The modern shipbuilding industry was revolutionised during the Second World War when the demand for ships was so great that construction methods had to be completely reinvented. For example before the war, the USA had only produced two cargo ships in fifteen years. By 1942, construction time had reduced from an average of eight months to a matter of weeks or even days. Such expansion was due to the introduction of a production line approach and the use of prefabricated, modular sections that were constructed off site and transported in. This allowed relatively unskilled workers to build the vessels at breakneck speeds with the rate of construction growing to thousands of ships a year.
Modern shipbuilding uses similar methods to the mass-produced system of World War Two, with the majority of the ship formed in these pre-made sections, before simply being lifted into place. This is known as 'block construction'. New technologies also allow the sections to come equipped with pre-installed utilities such as plumbing, electrical wiring and other components in order to minimise the effort required in assembly once the hull is welded together. This new method of construction has flourished around the world opening up this indispensable mode of transport to new countries and markets.
Although origins of large-scale vessel construction originate in the west, some European ship builders became the first to fold in the 1960s, losing contracts to their foreign competitors in the Asian countries. Asia could offer cheaper solutions produced within a stringent time frame. Between 2007-2011, the number of employees within the industry declined from 150,000 - 115,000, with the figures dropping each year.
Shipbuilding has always been an attractive industry for developing nations. Japan governed the market in the 1950s and 60s providing low cost solutions in order to rebuild its industrial reputation. South Korea joined the industry in the 70s. Today, China dominates the shipping industry, holding 35% of commissioned shipping contracts with shipyards such as Jinling and Yantai CIMC Raffles. This includes many of the ferry operators currently expanding their fleets such as DFDS and Stena Line. China have led the way as an efficient, low cost-high volume shipbuilder since they overtook South Korea in the 2008-2010 financial crisis.
Europe still has a successful shipbuilding industry however in the form of Flensburger, who have recently built the new Irish Ferries W.B Yeats ro-pax ferry and Cammell Laird who are currently working on a new ferry for Red Funnel. Scotland's Ferguson Marine are also working on the new MV Glen Sannox for Caledonian MacBrayne.
So, the next time you see a ferry sailing out of Dover or you're waiting to board at the port of Liverpool, chances are that ship was welded together in China, Germany, Scotland or Liverpool!