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Composites: Long-Term Viability and Benefits


Since the 1960’s, composites have evolved in technical sophistication and gained acceptance as the
material of choice for many high performance marine craft. Notwithstanding this, there is limited
understanding and recognition of the potential advantages that composites offer beyond these niche
applications. This paper case-studies the application of advanced composites in recent marine projects and
examines associated benefits. The findings highlight the relative benefits of composites and how they can
be quantified, marketed and ultimately delivered in the form of overall project cost reductions, necessary in
order to gain universal acceptance of composites as a commercially viable technology for broader
application in the construction of both commercial and naval vessels.


The marine pleasure craft industry took to composites with vigor over 40 years ago with the development of
fibreglass surfboards, yachts and speedboats for the mass market, where “backyard’ hand lay-up
techniques proved competitive in producing strong, formable and lightweight replacements for what were
traditionally timber craft. Whist the craft were generally fit for purpose, early teething problems with design,
material and production processes, over time, commonly resulted in structural deterioration, water ingress
and osmosis.

Designers today, in combination with the evolution of improved materials and manufacturing techniques,
develop craft that both outperform and outlast those constructed from rival materials. However, whist
composite construction has now been adopted for luxury and performance craft (both sail and power), it has
not yet gained broader acceptance as the technology of choice for the construction of general commercial or
naval ships.



Today’s designers of composite structures have gained a thorough understanding of the material’s
characteristics (and limitations) and have evolved and tailored design tools specifically to suit their needs.
Moreover, they are not constrained by the need to select only standard or uniform structural plate and
scantling dimensions for use in pursuit of the optimal design. Composite structural properties can be varied
throughout the design in order to address key stress points and hence minimise the overall cost of material
(in both weight and dollar terms).

The result is born out in watercraft that are optimised, both for minimum weight and maximum hydrodynamic
performance, under specified environmental conditions. This latter point is important, as catastrophic
structural failures, especially in competition, are often visually spectacular and attract high levels of media
coverage. Invariably, such failures occur when the conditions encountered (e.g. wind, wave height)
dramatically exceed those that were specified as design criteria and used in the development of the
structure to deliver optimal performance under normal operating conditions.
Notwithstanding such occasional “bad press”, the market reluctance to broadly embrace composites as a
viable alternative to either steel or aluminium for commercial ship construction is primarily due to
perceptions, and traditionally the realities, of the associated capital construction cost. However, construction
cost savings, both in material and labour, have been demonstrated in cases where an integrated approach
to material selection, effective design and production process was adopted from the outset.

SP Systems, UK, was commissioned by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to develop the
process for the production of a consistently high quality and durable Fast Inshore Boat. Whilst the resultant
weight reduction was not a specific criterion, it ultimately provided for greater flexibility in both vessel fit-out
and ballasting for optimal performance. SP’s approach embodied the use of carbon reinforcement
throughout the boat. The increased unit cost of carbon was fully offset by savings in both the materials and
labour hours associated with the reduction in internal structure. Precise processing technology was
developed, involving virtual templating and automated cutting to facilitate the kitting of both core and fabric
materials, which in turn allowed the construction sequence to be optimised to eliminate the need for
trimming, wet laminate taping and additional finishing. The result was a prototype some 20% larger than the
previous inshore lifeboat, but with a 25% reduction in structural weight, and able to be produced at a
comparable cost.

Overall Structural
Construction Material Weight %
Aluminium 100

Steel 150 - 180

Polyester CSM / WR Single Skin 105 - 120

Glass CSM / WR Polyester / Vinylester Balsa Core 90 - 95

Glass / Aramid Multiaxials / Foam Core 78 - 82

Glass / Aramid outer skin / foam core / carbon Inner Skin 70 - 75

Carbon skins / foam and honeycomb core 55 - 65

Table 1. Relative weight comparison between typical construction materials, highlighting not only the
intrinsic weight savings achievable with composites, but in particular the further savings leveraged through
the application of recent technological advances in materials, design and manufacturing processes.


Design criteria vary dependent on the application, and composites are often selected so as to utilise
properties which generally surpass those of steel or aluminium, such as:

• Minimum weight
• Aesthetics (especially through formability)
• Longevity
• Maintainability and repairability
• Corrosion and environmental resistance
• Signature performance (stealth, magnetic, acoustic, thermal, electromagnetic)
• Specific strength characteristics

This is exemplified by the application of composite construction to minewarfare vessels (minesweepers,

minehunters, drone boats and mine disposal vessels), which is well accepted and applied by naval
architects throughout the world, on the basis that a composites hull and structure offers zero magnetic
signature (to avoid triggering mine explosions). Recent Australian experience comprised two quite different
approaches to the design of minewarfare vessels.
Early Forays into Composites Technology

The first applications of composites to naval vessels is typified by the Australian approach in the early
1980’s, which produced an indigenously designed minesweeper, designated the Minehunter Inshore (MHI).
It exhibited many key features to optimise performance in a minefield, in particular adopting composites for
zero hull magnetic signature and a catamaran hull form that achieved minimum waterplane area and thus
reduced susceptibility to underwater shock. However, the program did not proceed further than the
construction of two prototypes, due in part to system performance issues that included poor seakeeping in
higher sea states. Later in their service life, the two vessels also experienced structural deterioration as was
commonplace with composite watercraft of the era. The materials, design and production process were not
optimised as an integrated technology solution and the construction methodology was, by today’s
technology standards, relatively crude.

Notwithstanding that the early forays into the application of composites for minewarfare vessels provided a
valuable learning experience in the evolution of the technology, the designs often suffered from being one-
off applications by naval designers and constructors that had limited experience in the application of the
emerging materials technology.

Evolving and Refining the Technology

In the early 1990’s, ADI Limited competitively secured a contract for the construction of six HUON Class
Minehunters – which were to be among the largest composite ships in the world at that time. Whilst the
Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had intimate knowledge of the UK SANDOWN Class, based on their
relationship with the Royal Navy’s minewarfare community and their utilisation of the same doctrine, it was
the Italian Navy’s LERICI Class design concept, developed by Intermarine SpA of Italy, which was ultimately
selected as the preferred design.

Intermarine had been evolving its unique composites technology and associated minehunter design since
the late 1970’s. Their approach was to first design a structure specifically to resist those keel and hull shock
factors specified by the Italian Navy. Only once the primary shock criteria were satisfied, did they
subsequently address the hydrodynamic, seakeeping and waveloading criteria normally applied by naval
architects. The resulting structure was optimised for shock performance – a monocoque concept which
eliminated all internal structural stiffening (and the associated hardpoints at the hull interface which
commonly failed under shock). The structure was 150mm at the keel, tapering to 50 mm at the gunwale, in
order to both resist the maximum keel shock factor loading and properly attenuate the shock pulse as it was
absorbed by the highly flexible hull structure.

The structural design drove the entire integrated minehunter system design. Main engines, generators and
auxiliary machinery, instead of resting on conventional foundations, were slung in composite “hammocks”
from the deckheads, isolating them from the ships hull so as to achieve maximum survivability when the hull
flexed under shock loading. This had the added advantage of dramatically reducing the noise and vibration
transferred from the engines through the hull, and hence the associated underwater noise signature of the
vessel. Similarly, both fuel and water were stored in composite filament wound cylindrical tanks, mounted
away from the hull so as to avoid the risk of rupturing under direct shock impact. The entire bilge area was
left clear of both structure and equipment, and easily accessible for under-equipment survey. Intermarine’s
extensive modeling of shock loading and attenuation, together with scaled shock trials on a purpose built
section of the ship, culminated in the successful full scale shock trial of the first Australian built minehunter
off the coast of New South Wales.

The Australian experience serves to illustrate that the replication of a conventional steel ship structural
design by designers with limited experience in composites will not necessarily achieve the full potential of
the technology. By contrast, experienced designers were able to successfully demonstrate that, by
modeling and evolving an integrated ship design and construction concept against designated load criteria,
performance far surpassing a conventional approach could be achieved. Intermarine have sold their
minehunters to several international navies and successfully exported their associated composites
construction technology to countries including Australia and the USA.

In 2002, following their success with the HUON Class Minehunter program and having developed a world-
class composites construction capability, ADI tendered a composites vessel for the Australian Replacement
Patrol Boat program. The acquisition strategy adopted by Defence was unique, in that their requirement
was to deliver a prescribed level of availability of a sea-patrol capability over a 15 year period, irrespective of
the number or type of vessels engaged to do so. This provided ADI the scope to develop a project strategy
which both capitalised on their existing capabilities and provided the necessary “blank canvas” for their
designers to engineer an optimal composites systems solution – not just build a composites copy of a
conventional steel patrol boat.

Working from an existing composites multi-role hull form (the Royal Danish Navy’s Flyvefisken Class), ADI
engaged the experienced composites technology team at SP Systems to assist them in minimising the
structural weight and refining the construction technique so that the capital cost of the boat would remain
competitive with the many steel and aluminium hulled alternative designs being proposed by competitors.
Additionally, because of the whole-of-project-lifecycle approach taken by Defence, the project team focused
their attention on designing a vessel that would achieve the minimum total cost of ownership of the fleet.

On the basis of this approach, the composites vessel concept was shortlisted down to the final three
contenders (against rival steel and aluminium hulled designs). However, a predominant selection criterion
remained the overall price of the capability, so in order for a composites design to succeed, it would be
necessary to convince Defence that the associated benefits could be realised in the form of tangible savings
in whole-of-project costs, relative to both steel and aluminium.

Acquisition Cost and Schedule

The cost of the hull and deckhouse moulds, when amortised over the cost of constructing a total fleet of
vessels, is not in itself significant. However, in the case of the patrol boat, delivery schedule was an
important criterion for Defence, and several steel and/or aluminium boats could conceivably be constructed
in parallel, unconstrained by the time taken to manufacture a mould and produce hulls sequentially. This
would have provided the proposals based on the conventional shipbuilding materials an intrinsic competitive
edge with respect to delivery schedule.

Through-life Structural Maintenance

A composites structure offers the clear advantages of having no susceptibility to corrosion or fatigue
cracking, combined with high resistance to collision damage and relative ease of localised repair. In-service
experience with composite naval ships such as minehunters has demonstrated that the elimination of the
need for structural maintenance serves to minimise dry-dock downtime and additionally frees-up crew from
traditional day to day painting for corrosion protection. Moreover, structural damage to composite ships
resulting from collisions with concrete wharves and even reef groundings has generally been shown to be
confined to the gelcoat and easily repairable.

The demonstrable benefit to the navy of a composite hull in service was greater operational availability of
both the crew and the vessel.

Hull Longevity

Whilst both steel and aluminium ships structures may experience fairly constant maintenance costs over a
15 year service life, thereafter maintenance costs begin to rapidly soar with the onset of steel corrosion and
aluminium fatigue cracking. For small naval vessels with relatively light hull scantlings, 20% of steel hull
plating typically needs replacing at the fifteen year mark. By comparison, today’s composites technology
has eliminated osmosis, so composite vessels retain their aesthetics, exhibit no structural deterioration, and
experience no escalation in maintenance costs over and beyond a 20-year lifecycle. The comparison is
represented in Figure 2.


15 yrs HULL

Figure 2 : Structural Maintenance Costs Over Lifecycle

Importantly for this application, the additional downtime required for maintenance of both steel and
aluminium hulled patrol boat fleets beyond year 15, would reduce further their relative operational

A composite vessel, although usually slightly higher in acquisition cost, has a true intrinsic residual value
at year 15, with several years of operational life remaining, and with little escalation in the associated hull
maintenance costs. A representation of the relative cost effective operational life and associated residual
value of a composite vessel relative to steel is shown in Figure 3.


Residual Value
of composite
Steel craft at year 15
l t

15 yrs 20 yrs+
HULL Remaining
LIFE life of
composite craft

Figure 3 : Operational Life and Residual Value

The useful operational life of a composites vessel is not limited by its structural integrity or any escalating
maintenance in the final years of operation. However, extended life could be limited by the aging and
obsolescence of the equipment outfit. These issues can be separately addressed by designers, in
particular in the selection of the installed configuration of the propulsion system so as to optimise its
serviceability and extend the system service life.
Installed Propulsion Power

A composite ships structure can be engineered to be significantly lighter than steel and as a consequence
require up to 25% less installed power for equivalent performance. This enables the selection of smaller,
lighter engines, creating better access for machinery maintenance and enabling a maintenance concept
based on the rapid removal and replacement for shop-based overhaul (on a rotatable pool basis with a
serviceable replacement), minimising vessel downtime and maximising operational availability.

The composite patrol boat offered an innovative propulsion system configuration comprising four engines,
which enabled the majority of missions to be accomplished utilising the two smaller cruise engines, with the
two larger sprint engines only utilised (and very efficiently at full power) for very limited high-speed
operations. This in turn enabled dramatic reductions to be projected in the more expensive and higher
downtime maintenance of the sprint engines, increasing projected operational availability and further
reducing costs. In fact, on the planned utilisation, the sprint engines would not have required a rebuild over
the service life of the boat.

Projected cost savings stemming from reduced installed power can be significant. A patrol boat could use
$800,000 worth of fuel and lubricating oil a year based on a continuous usage profile. A 25% reduction in
average power compared to a steel vessel would equate to a 25% relative reduction in fuel usage, or
savings of $200,000 per annum per boat (and with even further reductions attributed to the reduced
maintenance costs associated with the smaller engines).

The careful selection of composites hull material and associated installed power could achieve the
maximum fleet availability and minimum support costs over the longest term. The higher boat availability
achievable through adopting composites vessels meant that mission requirements could be achieved from
a smaller fleet of boats – effectively delivering direct savings in fleet acquisition and support costs (in
addition to the projected operational fuel savings). This holistic approach to the ship design exemplified
that it is possible to convert the rhetoric of the lower cost of ownership attributed to a composites fleet into
tangible up-front acquisition cost savings.


Naval Applications

Despite the innovative approach utilising composites to leverage true cost of ownership savings, an
aluminium design was selected for the Australian Patrol Boat requirement as offering best value for money,
possibly on the basis that:

• The proposals were conservatively assessed over a limited 15 year lifecycle

• The established aluminium fast ferry industry presented low delivery risk – particularly schedule
• The use of aluminium provided powering and fuel savings relative to steel (although still not as
significant as those that can be attributed to a composites vessel)
• Composites may have been evaluated as exhibiting the highest fire risk

Fire performance remains an emotive issue, because of the inherent risk to life. Yet fire retardant paints
and fire barrier surfacing films provide excellent protection. Composite bulkheads themselves provide
superior inherent heat insulation, which not only facilitates further cost savings in reduced air conditioning
loads, but assists in compartmentalising fire for periods adequate to enable safe evacuation of personnel
from adjacent spaces.

Clearly there are issues with composite fire performance that need to be addressed, however it is important
that when comparing with other materials a realistic assessment is made of the relative performance in a
real fire situation.
Many clients may be reluctant to be the first to accept composites for broader application, choosing instead
to “play it safe” with more traditional materials. The US Littoral Combat Ship Program shortlisted bids
based on both the Norwegian Schold Class Surface Effect Ship and the Swedish Visby Class Corvette,
which both made extensive use of composite structure, yet in the final analysis took forward the candidate
designs for prototyping in more traditional materials. Yet pioneers in the broader acceptance of composites
such as the Royal Danish Navy and the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution have both universally
adopted composites for their series of small to medium sized vessels with great success.

Perhaps the weight of the technical and long term economic argument to date has been insufficient to
convince the higher level decision makers, often senior naval officers who may only have experienced
seatime in steel vessels, or suffered a bad experience with early forays into composites technology? Such
conservatism is still reflected in naval construction standards, which remain focused on steel ships, to the
extent where navies often still specify painting of bilge and topside areas of composite vessels with
traditional paint schemes designed for application to steel, in lieu of accepting a suitably tinted gelcoat
finish. Notwithstanding this, composites continue to gain wide acceptance in the military technical
community for niche “high-tech” applications such as:

• Stealth/radar signature
• Magnetic signature
• Ballistic protection
• Raydomes
• Enclosed masts

Capturing the Commercial Market

The lack of broader acceptance appears to be based on perceived, rather than actual, technical risk and
capital cost. However, there does remain the issue of the need to establish the critical mass of capability
that will be necessary to achieve broader acceptance. Clients and operators are right to expect industry to
take the lead in the design and production of composite vessels. They should expect to be able to solicit
several competitive bids from composites designers and builders that have evolved and refined the
technology such that it is both demonstrably low risk and economical. The vast majority of shipyards have
invested heavily in the technology, equipment and training necessary to design and construct exclusively in
either steel or aluminium, and do not posses the expertise or infrastructure to competitively offer a
composite vessel as a one-off alternative to meet a particular client need. Nor have they been willing to
make the investment in composites technology, expertise and infrastructure ahead of client demand.

In Australia, the breakthrough in aluminium construction for fast ferries was made on the back of a
revolution, rather than evolution, in large catamaran design, corresponding with a worldwide peak demand,
favourable currency exchange rate, and companies willing to embrace the technology through investment
in training and infrastructure. However, like steel, aluminium ship construction is approaching the limits of
the technology, and astute designers, builders, owners and operators are looking to composites as the
technology that will offer scope for even further advancement in not only performance, but in vessel
availability and reduced cost of ownership.

The lessons learnt in the evolution of composites technology to date, together with the advantages derived,
are directly applicable to one-off custom built vessels such as superyachts. The RNLI Fast Inshore Boat
experience demonstrated that the weight savings achievable through composites technology can be
leveraged to optimise the total system design and production process, and achieve a competitive capital
construction cost. Additionally, the Australian Patrol Boat study modeled the use of composites to facilitate
a progressive support concept that delivered increased vessel availability over a longer term, along with the
tangible savings in cost of ownership attributed to reductions in both the frequency and duration of
maintenance. The designers, builders, owners and operators of superyachts and other commercial vessels
are beginning to put aside their traditional prejudices and look to these and other advances in total
technology packaging of composites to deliver true operational and economic advantages.