Marine & OffshoreJanuary 14, 2019

In with the new…while preserving the old

As Baby Boomers retire from shipbuilding, technology is helping capture those workers expertise and attract digitally savvy workers to drive the industry forward.
Avatar John Martin

Knowledge is forever. That certainly is true in books. So why not in companies?

Shipbuilding, for example, is both science and art, and it takes many years for a worker to master both. Increasingly, however, shipyards are finding that technology can simultaneously help them capture, retain and pass along knowledge and know-how developed by their Baby Boomer employees and attract a new, digital-native generation of workers to replace those reaching retirement age.

To understand the knowledge replication challenge, consider naval architects, the engineers who oversee ship design, construction and repair.

“Experienced people have a holistic view of the matter, which is difficult to have as a young naval architect,” said Roberto Prever, president and senior designer of NAOS Ship and Boat Design, a Trieste, Italy-based leader in the design of marine vehicles. Developing a holistic view requires years of experience in balancing the competing needs and priorities of dozens of different disciplines, including electrical, mechanical, structural, safety and human factors.

Passing that “holistic view“ to future generations is critical to what Dan Jacob, practice director and principal analyst at LNS Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls “business longevity” – allowing a company to thrive across many generations. Achieving business longevity, he said, requires a big dose of knowledge management, which he describes as a “structured approach to identify, prioritize, collect and transfer data and insights across the value chain, management and support functions to increase value.”

The trick, Jacob said, is to grab hold of not just know-how, but what he calls “know-better”: the know-how gained by workers through decades of experience. NAOS approaches the challenge by co-locating experienced and novice workers. “The ‘old foxes’ stay seated with the young workers across the development of new projects,” Prever said.


But what if the old foxes have already left the den? Some of their knowledge can be rediscovered by analyzing data in a company’s information and operational technology systems, to capture proven design and manufacturing practices, along with their built-in rules and templates, for reuse.

Knowledge capture is only the beginning, however; knowledge still must be transferred to and used by the next generation. And that, experts in the field agree, requires a unified, digital innovation platform to give every employee visibility into the knowledge they need across many disciplines.

Traditionally, each discipline has used its own specialized computer system to do its work, effectively locking knowledge into silos. NAOS Ship and Boat Design, and shipyards that include Damen Shipyards Group (the Netherlands), Naval Group (France) and Meyer Werft (Germany), are breaking these silos with digital innovation platforms that manage and capture every detail from ideation through design, manufacturing and support processes, as shared digital data.

A platform enables services such as mobile apps for accessing proficiency methods and software for identifying and collaborating with experts throughout the enterprise. New workers can train and certify themselves in new skills on e learning portals. Lessons-learned systems impart know-better knowledge from one generation to the next. The result is a social knowledge network equally accessible to all authorized employees, and to authorized members of a company’s external value network.

“We’ve established communities of practice with an inwardly facing social media approach,” Jacob said, describing how LNS Research works with its clients. “Local resources get to collaborate with ‘scarce resources’ and, as a significant benefit, the responses are captured.”

At CSSC Huangpu Wenchong Shipbuilding in Guangzhou, China, for example, new hires can access knowledge germane to their work from user guidance and standards housed on the company’s digital innovation platform – which the shipbuilder also leverages to host lectures, training and webinars.


Developing a platform-based social knowledge network helps companies capture experiential knowledge from their most experienced workers. It also energizes their replacements – the 140 million Millennial and Gen Z workers who live and breathe social networks.

Huangpu Wenchong shipbuilders, for example, amplifies engagement through annual technology innovation contests for young employees to encourage their talents; it also created an online venture to provide extra opportunities for interested recruits.

Other technologies that excite these workers – and that also are essential to shipbuilding productivity and innovation – include 3D modeling, digital simulation, wearables, robotics, mobile, AI/machine learning, virtual and augmented reality and gamification. Digital product innovation platforms integrate all of these capabilities. Ship owners, too, can use these platforms to capture knowledge from retiring crews, then use it to train new, tech-savvy shipmates via simulation and virtual operations.

The tech-driven cohort that will replace retirees will help safeguard business continuity through their acceptance of – indeed, their preference for – such technology.

“They are, and they will be, more and more important,” Prever said. Recruiting tech-savvy newcomers to the industry is critical, he said, because ship design “becomes always more complex, because the technologies are more complex, and the bouquet of possibilities more wide.”

It’s all part of Industry Renaissance, a societal transformation being driven by the use of virtual worlds to capture, grow and leverage companies’ knowledge and know-how. By breaking down functional silos and creating end-to-end visibility, businesses can quickly sense and respond to fast-changing market demands, and even to implement and test entirely new business models.

Millennial and Gen Z workers are already energized by manufacturing real things; witness the maker movement. Offering them modern, digital capabilities, these digital shipyard pioneers believe, will attract an innovative new workforce of the future empowered by access to all of their predecessors’ knowledge and know-how – and the means to build on it.

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