Significant investment in computer technology has been made to support the detailed design and production of the Type 26 frigate. Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems have been in use for many years but Virtual Reality software is now core to the design process.
The complete design story of the Type 26 is long and convoluted but here we will focus on the use of new technology in the detailed design work during the “Demonstration Phase” which ran between April 2015 and June 2017. Although the design is now very mature, work continues to fine tune some aspects and support the manufacturing phase. There is also a significant task for the design teams to adapt the Type 26 for Australian and Canadian requirements.
Industries around the world use a system created by Virtalis called Visionary Render 2 (VR2) which takes CAD files and brings them to life in three-dimensional virtual reality (VR). BAE Systems started using VR2 for warship design in January 2015 and has now embedded the system into their design process for Type 26. The batch II OPV design was nearly complete when BAES adopted VR2 but it was used in the later stages which has served as a learning experience. The more complex and Type 26 frigate, which has over 800 separate compartments, will take the potential of VR-assisted design further and be fully integrated in the design process. The capabilities of VR2 continue to improve with a programme of incremental software updates. The technologies used are not entirely new but this is the first time immersive VR has been used as a comprehensive design verification tool in UK warship design.
In the development of previous generations of warships and submarines, full-scale plywood mockups were sometimes constructed to help refine the design, test the ergonomics and familiarise the commissioning crew with compartment layouts. This was a laborious process and any changes required had to be manually fed back to the designers and new drawings produced. CAD systems started to replace physical drawings in the 1980s and by the 21st century, 3D viewing software linked to CAD systems was starting to be used in a small way. Although adopted more quickly in other industries, VR2 is now in daily use and fundamental to the development of the Type 26.
Using VR it is now possible to walk around the entire virtual ship and examine it in minute detail. Design changes can be quickly fed back and the computer models updated. The ability to perform digital ‘prove-out’ ahead of any commitment to physically building saves time and money. The system also allows compartments to achieve safety sign off before construction. Features that might present a danger to the crew and evacuation routes can be evaluated before construction. As a specific example of the benefits, using CAD data it took 2 days to analyse the proposed configuration of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning) equipment in one compartment, the same task can now be done in 45 minutes using VR2.
A dispersed team
The complete Type 26 frigate CAD model runs to many terabytes of data but the VR2 system is able to use a lightweight version that requires just 3 gigabytes. This allows the system to be run on affordable high-end desktop computers and it only takes about an hour to train an operator in the basics of using the system. VR is now being taken a step further than just a design tool. Up to 500 design and systems engineers are employed on the Type 26 project and VR provides a powerful means of collaboration. A secure network allows the design teams to work in real time with suppliers and manufacturers at dispersed locations to view and develop the design and manufacture together processing together.
The digital shipyard
After the design is signed off, the VR2 system also informs the manufacturing stage. Data from the design can be used to decide quantities and specifications for materials. This improves the ability to generate exacting and timely orders for placing with the extensive supplier base. Once complex and mission-critical parts of the ship have been constructed, it is also now possible using cameras and laser-measuring tools to compare the compartment with the original design to check for anomalies and that it meets the specified tolerances. The computer model will be updated throughout the life of the ships and can be used to de-risk potential upgrades and design changes before they are made. This is especially important as technology and naval threats are evolving faster which demands affordable and flexible means to accelerate the upgrade process.
Training and sales
The VR computer model of the ship can also continue to support the ship in service as a tool to train the crew and rehearse equipment installation or maintenance procedures before work is done for real. Virtalis has a long-standing relationship with BAES, VR2 is also used by other parts of BAES business. The company developed and VR-based training aids for Type 45 destroyer crews as far back as 2006. A similar tool was developed to help sailors learn their way around the vast interior of HMS Queen Elizabeth long before she resembled a completed ship. In a training scenario, the students are confronted with decision points where they can select from different paths or click on any part in the ship to see additional information and images in pop-up windows. The digital shipyard concept and the VR tools also give BAES an obvious sales and marketing edge. The prospective Australian and Canadian customers were shown around the ship virtually before they decided to buy. This may also have helped to deflect some of the criticism that the Type 26 candidate was ‘not mature’ in comparison with other designs that were already at sea.
The price tag of a Type 26 frigate would not lead to the immediate conclusion that VR-based design has delivered big savings. The real benefits of this new technique are more likely to be seen in the quality of HMS Glasgow and her sisters, reduced through-life costs and more rapid deployment of new capabilities and upgrades.