Putting the Pieces Together

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Walk or ride along the narrow pathways snaking throughout the vast STX France shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, and the untrained eye sees it littered with what appear to be large chunks of ships.

Over there on the rather bleak, crowded industrial landscape is what appears to be the bulbous nose of a ship’s bow, a large protuberance that rides just under the water and directs its flow around the hull to reduce drag. (Workers at the yard may tell you that, simple as it looks, it’s the single most difficult piece to weld properly during fabrication).

In other places, pieces of steel welded at right angles appear to be little more than scrap, while nearby loom very tall, very wide cubes that look like thick slices of multi-story apartment buildings, their open ends protected by tarps.

These chunks are actually the primal building blocks of today’s most advanced shipbuilding, the result of decades of evolution in design and construction.

“When you stand on board and you watch the process you think, ‘Bloody hell, why were we not doing this all along?’” says Kevin Douglas, RCL vice president of technical projects – newbuild. “Well, sometimes you need to be taught a new way of doing things, or given a new tool, a new way to think, and then you apply it and you see how it gets better.”

In this case, better is faster and faster saves money. Compared to traditional shipbuilding methods of more than 20 years ago, Douglas says, building with blocks has cut construction time roughly in half.

The process, now used in virtually every major shipyard, is similar to prefabrication of housing units on land. The blocks may be shaped in any of several ways, some as cross-sections of the hull with gracefully curved sides, others closer to cubes with floor, four wall panels and ceiling.

Each of the blocks is pre-outfitted with wiring, HVAC ducts, plumbing – nearly everything required for that piece of the ship except flooring, tiling and other elements that might be spoiled as the blocks are assembled. As each block is completed, it’s lifted into place beside or atop another block and welded into place, usually by hand. Utility connections are made and the ship continues to take form.

The term “mega blocks” came along as shipyard gantry cranes grew bigger, were able to lift heavier loads, and more efficiently confronted the construction of the latest iteration of “mega ships” such as RCL’s Oasis and Quantum classes.

The ability to assemble blocks into mega blocks meant more work could be done on land, saving expensive, highly coveted time in dry dock where final assembly takes place.

“The bigger the lifting capacity, the fewer the number of blocks you need to install,” Douglas says.

In the last couple of years, STX France constructed a new gantry crane on its yard, one capable of doing the heavy lifting – as much as 1,400 tons – on even the biggest cruise ship in the world, Harmony of the Seas.

The newest pride of the fleet was handed over to RCL this month.