The UK shipbuilding industry has been experiencing a resurgence lately. This is driven by ambitious developments at iconic shipyards such as Harland & Wolff and the cutting-edge innovations spearheaded by BAE Systems. These key players are reshaping the industry and contributing to the nation’s maritime prowess in an era of global challenges and opportunities.
Nestled on the banks of the River Lagan in Belfast, Harland & Wolff, with a storied history dating back to 1861, is undergoing a remarkable renaissance. Once synonymous with the construction of the Titanic, the shipyard has faced challenges in recent years. However, a strategic acquisition in 2019 by InfraStrata breathed new life into the iconic facility.
Under the new ownership, Harland & Wolff has diversified its portfolio, expanding beyond traditional shipbuilding to include renewable energy projects. The shipyard is now at the forefront of constructing wind farm components, such as wind turbine jackets and substations. This move aligns with the UK’s commitment to sustainable energy and positions Harland & Wolff as a crucial player in the green transition.
“The transformation of Harland & Wolff symbolises the adaptability and resilience of the UK maritime industry,” says CEO John Wood.
“We are not just building ships; we are constructing a sustainable future for the generations to come.” he continues.
Despite registering a loss of almost £16 million, Harland & Wolff reported a 65% rise in revenues for the first half of 2023, driven by a deal for the mid-life upgrade and drydocking of a large floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel, the SeaRose. A consortium including H&W, along with BMT and Navantia UK, was also awarded the massive £1.6 billion contract for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Solid Support (FSS) Programme. The SeaRose will arrive at the Harland & Wolff Belfast dock in 2024 where it will remain for three months. The work will involve around 1,000 workers at its peak.
A commitment to innovation
Meanwhile, BAE Systems, a global defence, security and aerospace company, is also leaving its mark on the UK shipping industry through its cutting-edge technologies. With a focus on innovation and collaboration, BAE Systems is playing a pivotal role in shaping the next generation of naval vessels.
BAE’s involvement in the Type 26 and Type 31 frigate programmes for the Royal Navy showcases the company’s commitment to delivering state-of-the-art naval capabilities. These vessels incorporate advanced technologies, including stealth features, advanced radars, and sophisticated combat systems, ensuring the UK maintains a competitive edge on the high seas.
“Our commitment to innovation is reshaping the naval landscape. The Type 26 and Type 31 frigates are not just vessels; they represent the pinnacle of technological excellence and strategic foresight,” says Dr Jennifer Turner, BAE Systems’ maritime sector director, emphasising the significance of these projects.
The increased work of Harland & Wolff and BAE Systems is an example of the currently diverse nature of the maritime industry in the UK. As Harland & Wolff diversifies into renewable energy, BAE Systems continues to push the boundaries of naval technology. A move that is sustaining the UK’s industrial base but also positioning the nation as a global leader in maritime innovation.
Elsewhere, other UK-based shipyards have seen their fortunes increase recently. Birkenhead-based shipbuilding and repair company Cammell Laird recently announced a merger with A&P Group to form APCL Group Ltd. In 2022 the company hosted the speech by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson who announced the National Shipbuilding Strategy Refresh. Since then one highlight of Cammell Laird’s recent activities is the successful maintenance and refitting of four Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels, reflecting the company’s commitment to excellence and innovation.
These four vessels include the UK’s first Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ship. RFA Proteus, formerly known as the Topaz Tangaroa, was a notable project undertaken by Cammell Laird. The ship was purchased by the UK Ministry of Defence for conversion into an MROS vessel. Cammell Laird executed significant modifications to the crane, deck machinery, and applied a full paint scheme and name change.
All the additions to Cammell Laird’s RFA cluster will receive ongoing support both domestically and in operational theatres across the globe. Addressing the company’s track record, Cammell Laird’s managing director, Mike Hill, states: “Cammell Laird’s RFA Cluster Support Team has delivered comprehensive through-life support to 17 RFA platforms since 2008, and it’s something we’re immensely proud of.”
All three companies are not only invested in naval technology but are also involved significantly in the next generation of shipbuilders. Cammell Laird’s comprehensive apprenticeship scheme has previously allowed 70 apprentices to work on the RRS Sir David Attenborough. The company has also partnered with the Engineering College and Wirral Met to encourage young people into the industry.
The surge in activities for Cammell Laird also saw several other RFA vessels undergoing ship repair works at the company’s yard. RFA Tiderace, a Tide class replenishment tanker, underwent a major refit and regeneration work, while RFA Tidesurge is currently in the midst of an intense contractor support period. Additionally, RFA Fort Victoria, a Fort class combined fleet stores ship and tanker, is undergoing essential maintenance.
“The Cammell Laird workforce knows these ships inside and out,” says David McGinley, CEO of APCL Group. “That level of experience is something that the RFA and Ministry of Defence always know they can count on.”
Training for the future
McGinley also expresses pride in providing apprentices with the opportunity to learn on these contracts, ensuring the continuity of skills essential for maintaining these vital ships in top operational condition for years to come.
BAE Systems has recently announced that it will be adding 300 more apprentices and graduates to its workforce in Scotland in 2024. This reflects a strategic move to boost shipbuilding capacity at its facilities in Govan and Scotstoun where the advanced Type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy are under construction. The ambitious initiative is part of BAE Systems’ broader strategy to recruit almost 2,700 trainees across the UK.
“As the UK’s largest manufacturer, we have sites located right across the country, and we’re investing hundreds of millions of pounds to equip young people with the skills they need to achieve their full potential,” says Charles Woodburn, chief executive of BAE Systems.
Harland & Wolff also offers a comprehensive apprenticeship scheme to young people seeking a career in shipbuilding and related industries. The programme provides hands-on training and mentorship, allowing apprentices to develop practical skills in various trades such as welding, engineering and ship design.
In 2023 the company also welcomed 75 new apprentices as part of its commitment to the National Shipbuilding Strategy. The apprentices will contribute to the company’s growth plans across the UK. The move aligns with recommendations from the UK Shipbuilding Skills Taskforce, which stated in a recent report that the sector must address skills shortages in the UK shipbuilding industry.
Modernisation of facilities
Both BAE Systems and Harland & Wolff have also invested heavily into upgrading their respective facilities. The latter has commenced upgrades to its historic Belfast shipyard in preparation for the Team Resolute’s Fleet Solid Support (FSS) contract with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The improvements, including a 5,000m2 extension to fabrication halls and advanced shipbuilding techniques, will enhance the shipyard’s capability to construct three 40,000tonne vessels for the Royal Navy.
The FSS contract, awarded in January 2023, unlocked £77 million of investment and is expected to generate employment for 1,200 personnel at peak production. The Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, and the Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps, welcomed the developments as positive for the UK’s maritime industry and national security. Harland & Wolff CEO John Wood highlighted the transformational impact of the £77 million investment on the shipyard’s ability to undertake larger projects using cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.
Additionally, BAE Systems has started a transformation of an unused dock at its Govan shipyard in Glasgow as construction begins on a colossal ship build hall. The hall, measuring 170m in length and 80m in width, is a core component of BAE Systems’ £300 million modernisation and digitalisation initiative for shipbuilding facilities at Govan and Scotstoun. The hall, being constructed by McLaughlin and Harvey, will accommodate the simultaneous construction of two Type 26 frigates.
In November 2022 BAE Systems secured a £4.2 billion contract with the Ministry of Defence to build an additional five Type 26 ships, augmenting the initial contract for the first three vessels. The new Type 26 frigates under construction are designed to provide a new warfighting capability for the Royal Navy. It is adaptable for various roles, including anti-submarine warfare, high-intensity air defence, and humanitarian aid missions.
The new ship build hall, which will be constructed from over 6,000tonnes of steel and 20,000m³ of concrete, will be equipped with two 100tonne cranes and two 20tonne cranes. It will be able to host up to 500 workers per shift.
These new developments signal a new future for the UK shipping industry. As the sector charts a course into a new era, the collective efforts of Harland & Wolff, BAE Systems and the APCL Group will help to position the UK as a leader in maritime innovation. The ongoing investments in technology, talent, and infrastructure not only reflect a commitment to sustainable growth, but also ensure that the sails of the UK shipping industry are set for a bright and prosperous future.