What’s the future for British warship construction?

News editor

BAE Systems doesn’t do photogenic, at least not according to Brian Johnson, the company’s UK business development director for naval ships.

Welcoming journalists to the company’s facilities in Glasgow this week, Johnson made his comment in relation to concerns that were raised when cranes were decommissioned at the Govan dockyard last autumn.

The removal of the cranes was seen by many as further evidence of the decline in shipbuilding on the River Clyde – a point that carries weight but doesn’t tell the entire story.

Heritage, claims Johnson, can be something of a burden in a city that made its name as a major centre for shipbuilding. BAE Systems is, however, a high-tech defence engineering company which, like all commercial entities, has to react to the markets it serves.

The decision to cease manufacturing at Portsmouth by the end of this year wasn’t one the company’s most popular decisions but the site will retain around 250 engineers to support the Type 26 and Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) programme.

Similarly, plans are well advanced to compensate for the drop off in work when the two new QEC aircraft carriers are completed and the Type 26 programme comes online.

This will involve consolidation of BAE’s shipbuilding capabilities into its Scotstoun site, where a new landmark – in the form of a 300m long covered dry dock – will form part of a £200m investment designed to bring down the cost the Type 26.

‘We have to prove we’re a business for the next century, in the way the Royal Navy is modernising for the next century,’ said Johnson. ‘We’re proud of our heritage but this is about moving forward to the Type 26 programme.’

The company isn’t in a position to produce a full working prototype of the Type 26 but it is introducing Visionary Render from Virtalis to connect its design teams in Glasgow, Filton and Portsmouth.

Visionary Render – installed in a network that links the three offices – takes Foran CAD files and lets users walk through the Type 26 in 3D, with Windchill PLM software providing total project information for every design iteration.

Working practices are changing too, with production staff employing schedule based working, a system that rewards employees with time off for achieving production targets. Designed to foster greater teamwork, schedule based working has been trialled successfully by around 50 pipe shop workers and is expected to be fully embedded at Scotstoun by the start of the Type 26 programme.

This is quite a significant change among a heavily unionised workforce more used to working core hours – 0730 to 1600 – and being paid overtime for excess hours. Designed with input from union representatives, pay is now consolidated into a monthly salary and employees are subject to performance improvement targets also.

BAE Systems might not ‘do photogenic’, and the redeveloped Scotstoun site will cease the very photogenic practise of dynamic launches. What it has done is adapt, positioning itself for new programmes that will take work at Scotstoun to at least the mid-2030s if the MoD orders an expected 13 Type 26 vessels.

The Glasgow skyline may have changed over the years but its position as the prime site for warship production is not totally diminished.

‘The heritage of complex warship building is all about the Clyde, and has been for four decades,’ said Johnson.