Engineering Services Outsourcing in Shipbuilding
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Engineering Services Outsourcing in Shipbuilding

By Cdr S. Shrikumar (Retd.), Indian Navy

Engineering Services Outsourcing in Shipbuilding

Increasingly, equipment manufacturers are integrating advanced technology into the design of most products. Even everyday kitchen appliances come engineered with built-in IT that helps connect the appliance with a smart device via which to operate the appliance and gather data to enable predictive and preventive maintenance. 

In the case of more complex equipment - in the aerospace industry for example - the integration of advanced technology during equipment engineering, makes it a complex and expensive activity. It becomes extremely difficult for firms designing and manufacturing aerospace equipment to gather the required technical talent and simultaneously also manage cost pressures. Firms manufacturing aerospace equipment, therefore, buy a wide range of engineering services, through outsourcing, to gain cost-effective access to skills and capacity. 

The trigger for outsourcing engineering services to India was first provided by global automotive majors who outsourced several non-core engineering activities to local Engineering Service Providers (ESPs). 

The initial Engineering Services Outsourcing (ESO) contracts were tactical and structured as renewable Time & Materials (T&M) arrangements. Gradually, T&M arrangements as a basis for buying external services began declining and were steadily replaced by ‘pay-per-service and ‘work package’ arrangements. Under the work package approach, ESO firms make upfront commitments on pricing, on-time delivery, service quality, etc and payment to the ESO firms is made on their meeting these goals.

The work package approach enables firms to achieve the two most important objectives for buying ESO services - (a) improvements in efficiency & productivity and, (b) effective management of production costs. Additional benefits such as quicker time-to-market, better management of talent/lack of resources, and efficient compliance to offset requirements also accrue to the firms. 

Of late, a new trend increasingly seen in the ESO industry, enabled by industrial automation, robotics, and 3D printing is the integration of even the manufacturing function as an additional field of expertise. 

Over the last two decades, ESO activity, in the aerospace domain in India, has gained significant traction, exhibited steady growth, and attained impressive maturity. 

The Indian aerospace ESO ecosystem comprises a mix of Global Engineering Centres (GECs) set up by parent aerospace firms and local Engineering Service Providers (ESPs). 

Nearly every major global aerospace firm has an engineering facility in India. Global aerospace majors are drawn to India due to the ready availability of quality technical talent in software, modeling, simulation, and electronics. 

This trend is reflective of the increasing willingness of aerospace firms to use specialist external engineering services as a means of tapping into scarce high-end engineering skills & talent that are difficult to attract, retain and develop internally. This rising acceptance of outsourced high-end specialist services contrasts starkly with the initial practice of viewing outsourcing only as a means to reduce costs of low-value, high-volume back-office processes.

The parallels between the aerospace and marine sectors

The shipbuilding industry, in several respects, very closely resembles the aerospace industry. Aircraft and ships are fitted with nearly identical equipment - for power generation, propulsion, navigation, communication, control systems, etc. For example, aircraft and shipborne Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) are very similar in design - with only minor differences in system hardware/software. The accelerometers that help the INSs determine speed and position on aircraft & ships are identical. The only difference being - accelerometers on ship-installed INSs are more sensitive to enable detection of the lower speeds/rates of turn of ships. 

Also, the design requirements for equipment fitted on aircraft and ships are very similar. This is borne out by the fact that many of the leading global equipment manufacturers, supply equipment for both aircraft & ships (examples - Raytheon and Safran supply navigation equipment for both aircraft & ships and Rolls Royce supplies engines for both aircraft and ships). 

Further, the foundational design principles for aircraft and ships, are analogous. This is not surprising - only the mediums in which aircraft/ships operate (air/water) are different - the underlying principles of aerodynamics/hydrodynamics that govern their operation are analogous. Many constraints that govern aircraft design - of space, ruggedness, operating environment, security, etc also apply to ship/submarine design. 

However, despite the many similarities, the marine industry is yet to fully open up to and embrace the many benefits that ESO affords. 

The marine industry has begun outsourcing some traditional engineering services - drafting, modeling, and MRO to ESPs. However, unlike in the aerospace industry, advanced tasks such as designing, prototyping, simulation, testing, and system engineering of marine structures, mechanical equipment, and electronics are yet not being entrusted to the ESPs. 

Why outsource marine engineering services?

Currently, shipyards in China, South Korea, and Japan dominate global shipbuilding by completed gross tonnage. Shipyards in Europe and the USA once dominated global shipbuilding - till they lost work to Japan in the 1960s. Subsequently, since the late 1990s, the bulk of the shipbuilding activity shifted to China and S Korea. Established shipbuilders in Europe such as Fincantieri, Navantia, Naval Group, BAE Systems, Thyssen Krupp, Saab Kockums, and the Russian shipyards now only construct specialty and military ships/ submarines. In the US, the Jones Act (that mandates that ships used for moving domestic cargo need to be US-built and owned) has enabled limited merchant shipbuilding. 

The world shipbuilding industry is characterized by over-capacity, depressed prices, low-profit margins, and widespread subsidization. ESO, as it has done for the aerospace industry, could help the shipbuilding industry raise profit margins by lowering production costs besides helping meet any offset obligations. 

The aerospace firms started out, initially, by outsourcing only low-value, low-skill back-office activities to Indian ESPs. With time, both parties gained confidence in the efficacy of the arrangement. Soon, more and more higher-skill activities such as system/concept/ detailed design, engineering studies & analyses, manufacturing engineering and design for maintainability, etc began to be outsourced. 

ESO for shipbuilding will require to go through a similar cycle of evolution. However, although ESO in the aerospace industry took 2-3 decades to attain its current level of maturity, the marine industry will benefit from the experience gained by the aerospace industry and attain maturity faster. 

Given the correspondence of design principles, equipment technologies, and operating environments of aerospace and marine platforms/equipment, it will not be difficult for experienced resources in the aerospace ESPs, to quickly adapt to the work requirements in the marine sector and also help new talent come up to speed on essential skills. 

The feasibility of easy transfer of skills, the potential for expanding the scope and volume of work for ESPs, and the benefit from the resulting economies of scale that will follow are strong incentives for the OEMs and the ESPs to enthusiastically pursue ESO for ship/ submarine construction. 

Factors influencing the outsourcing decision

Some of the concerns that the aerospace industry was faced with (concerns that have now largely been overcome) when initially contemplating outsourcing were related to:
  • Confidentiality/IP protection
  • Impact on quality
  • Loss of control, Loss of operational capabilities/competencies Flexibility for fluctuating demand
  • Hidden costs (e.g. transition, IT)
  • The complexity of the sourcing process (management, governance, contracting)
  • Lack of skills availability
  • Impact on the time to market
  • Readiness of the company in terms of processes and organization
  • Cultural/ language issues 
Despite the growing confidence in the capabilities of the ESPs, the aerospace firms still keep their very highest-level and core business-critical engineering functions/skills in-house. The ESPs are gradually winning the aerospace firms over with appropriate responses - mainly by investing in acquiring the required higher-order skills & competencies. The future growth of ESPs will depend on their willingness to put their skin in the game through shared investments in process and product innovations. The positive experience of aerospace OEMs in outsourcing business-critical activities to ESPs will help hasten the pace of the evolution of outsourcing in other sectors, including shipbuilding. 

The prospects for marine engineering services outsourcing in India

Shipyards in China, S Korea, and Japan outsource engineering services - but only locally. Although Russia allows licensed production of aircraft in India and other countries, Russia’s aerospace firms do not outsource any engineering activity. Almost certainly, Russian shipyards too will not readily outsource any engineering activity. Ship construction activity in the European and US shipyards - merchant and military - is largely to meet domestic demand and the shipyards already have an established network of Tier-I/II firms that provide the required engineering support. 

In such a scenario, for Indian engineering services firms to win outsourcing contracts for shipbuilding will undoubtedly be an uphill task. Global shipyards are operating under fierce competitive and cost pressures. It makes sense for them to focus on their core competencies and offshore/outsource their engineering, aftermarket, and MRO services to low-cost countries such as India to relieve cost pressures. India’s location - in close proximity to the centers of global shipbuilding in east Asia, shared cultural affinities, and India’s proven capabilities in providing a variety of quality, high-end engineering services bolster its case. 

Modern shipbuilding makes considerable use of the ‘Block Construction’ approach. Aircraft construction too follows a similar approach. In block construction, entire multi-deck segments of ships are built in the shop floors of the yard, pre-installed with equipment, pipes, and cables, and then transported to the building dock and welded together. This approach minimizes the effort required to assemble or install equipment deep within the hull once it is welded together. The block construction approach is inherently well suited to benefit from outsourcing. 

Indian shipyards, state-owned and private, have begun outsourcing their drawing, modeling, and documentation work to local ESPs. Several of the leading Indian IT majors are doing CAD/CAE, CFD analysis, documentation, system engineering, and modeling work for the shipbuilding industry on a limited scale. 

The aerospace sector has demonstrated that global firms and their Indian ESPs can work together to deliver greater efficiencies and derive mutual benefit. Building an ecosystem of global shipyards, their GECs, and Indian shipyards & ESPs, for outsourcing/offshoring engineering services, holds the promise of delivering the same business impact, for the shipbuilding industry, that it has done for the aerospace industry.

About the Author:

Cdr S. Shrikumar (Retd.), Indian Navy(ORCID: 0000-0001-6698-4231) is an accomplished professional with rich experience in the Defence/Aerospace sector specializing in Operations, Technology Management, Technology collaborations/JVs, Defence Procurements/Defence Offsets, and Government regulatory/policy requirements. A former submariner with the Indian Navy and an alumnus of the London Business School, the United Kingdom.

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