The Art of Designing Factories That Operate Inside Ships

Based in Alesund, Norway, Steel-X is a small engineering company formed by four brothers in 2009. Originally operating out of a rented workshop facility, they specialized in manufacturing stainless-steel factory process equipment for the fishing industry.

Steel-X delivers complete fish processing plants which are used in large offshore fishing vessels and, in many cases, they are contracted to fit within new ship build projects, working alongside the shipbuilder

With fishing trawlers at sea for weeks at a time, modern on-board fish factories sort, process, freeze, and pack fish as it is caught, readying it for unloading and shipping directly to the wholesaler when they dock. A typical factory is extremely complex, including simple racks, tanks, conveyors and bins, as well as high-tech robotic machines for cutting, deep freezing, packaging, and palletting finished seafood products. All equipment is manufactured in stainless steel, to remain clean and hygienically food safe, and at the same time tough enough to work for years on board, operating all year round in the world’s harshest environment.

Steel-X is responsible for the design work, specification, and all sheet metal fabrication, with much of the ancillary equipment (motors, bearings, freezers, etc.) being bought in through a third-party supply chain. The Steel-X team are then responsible for delivering and installing the turnkey solution for the client.

An Intuitive CAD Platform Perfect for Engineers with No Drafting Experience

Initially, the brothers went on an Autodesk training course to understand CAD and what it could do for them, but they found the whole approach to design to be alien to them. Plus, it was simply too slow and laborious to use. They knew that it would have been impossible to lay out process plants productively in 2D, due to challenging shapes. They needed to be more creative and to use every space extremely efficiently.

As a new start-up company in a very competitive industry with a handful of established players, they knew that they needed to be different and to offer a unique edge. Their innovative approach to design had to be matched by tools that would help them produce models quicker, more accurately than their competitors, and to present credible visualizations that would help win confidence in their designs and secure bids.

They very quickly realized that to be successful, they needed a 3D solution that:

  • Was simple to use as the Steel-X team were all engineers, not draughtsmen.
  • Could import and reuse geometry easily from all their suppliers, who all use different CAD systems.
  • Could change layouts quickly and on the fly as designs evolved, working with clients in the sales process.
  • Could create good visualizations essential to securing contracts.

Steel-X evaluated multiple products before they found IronCAD, which clearly offered exactly what they were looking for. In 2009 they purchased IRONCAD and, after a one-day training course, they were up and running, starting to produce models.

Steel-X’s First Big Contract

In 2011, Steel-X secured their first big contract — to design and produce a full fish and shrimp processing factory to go into the refit of an existing trawler.

The use of detailed 3D modeling, working in a single-scene environment, allowed Steel-X to foresee and prevent clashes and interferences which minimized snagging issues onsite, keeping the project on track and on budget. Having an intuitive design system with free viewer applications let the entire team view and interrogate live design data, which also helped to minimize potential mistakes.

Following the successful implementation, the same client then went on to award them the contract for the processing plant in their new build, 74-meter fishing trawler, the M/Tr Hopen.  

Whilst still relatively new, Steel-X quickly developed a reputation within the industry for delivering successful, state-of-the art fish processing plants that work right the first time.

Over the following years the company grew steadily and consistently. In 2013, they outgrew their original factory, purchasing new industrial premises on the dockside in Alesund.

In 2016, Steel-X was awarded a significant contract to provide the first of four large advanced fish processing factories, to be fitted to a fleet of new Norwegian-designed 86-meter ships being built in Russia for the rapidly growing JSC Arkhangelsk trawler fleet.

Building a high-tech process line onboard a ship takes considerably more planning than a factory on shore. For this project, everything had to be prefabricated off site and then implemented within the structure of the ship during production. Location points for all machines were welded to the ship structure early in the construction phase in Russia, prior to the delivery of any equipment from Norway. To ensure a seamless build process, data collaboration with the shipyard was critical at all stages.

CAD That Supports More Than Just Design

Initially, Steel-X wanted a CAD product to configure and design systems, but over the years it has grown to encompass all areas of their business, from sales to communication with suppliers, clients, and also shipbuilders contracted to build the vessels.  

IronCAD loves hearing from customers and always looks for ways to stay one step ahead of their demands. The 2018 release of IRONCAD builds on the product’s traditional strengths but also delivers even more collaboration capabilities, which successful companies like Steel-X are either looking for today or are likely considering for the future.

In the case of Steel-X, these collaborative capabilities help them navigate the following situations in their design process:

  • When systems are being delivered to site and built into new ships, some design data needs to be made available to the ship builder. However, they face increasing risks that overseas shipbuilders may try to steal their IP and copy their designs, so it’s important that they can keep the detailed design data in house wherever possible, but have simplified datasets they can make more generally available. IronCAD has introduced a new “ShrinkWrap” capability in their 2018 release to help reduce model size and allow users to keep the valuable design data in house.
  • Working with large systems, Steel-X want to have access to all the design data — from individual components within a machine through to the full machine assembly — all within the full assembly layout model. As a result, the model files become enormous. IRONCAD’s large assembly performance has continued to improve over the years and the new 2018 version takes another huge step forwards. IRONCAD now leads the way in large assembly handling within a single scene environment.
  • Moving forwards, Steel-X plans to manage and control most of their data in house, and to provide web-browser based access, enabling clients, consultants and the ship builders to access, view, and interrogate the CAD models online. This will protect their design data still further, and, with just one centrally managed source of data, will ensure everybody is working with the most up-to-date information, eliminating the risk of errors caused by people working from old drawings. IRONCAD 2018 introduces a new web-browser-based CAD viewer capability to allow users to collaborate and share their design data freely.
  • As the business has grown, Steel-X’s design team is under pressure to produce a growing number of detail drawings faster than ever. With IRONCAD’s new 2018 release, users can now automate the bulk production of 2D detail drawings, allowing them to be automatically created in the background while the user focuses on the developing the 3D model.

After trying the new IronCAD 2018 product, Petter Brørs, senior designer at Steel-X, commented: “We are very happy with IronCAD as our tool for the total process from first conceptual factory designs, collaboration with customer and suppliers, to manufacturing documentation and drawings. The new graphical performance boost in IronCAD 2018 is incredible and makes it possible to work fluently with even small detailing in our full factory assembly file which is many Gb’s in size, containing thousands of parts of native and imported parts and components. Other new features for Shrinkwrap and Quick Production Drawings, like the Bulk Drawing Generation tool, actually saved me making the deadline this autumn.”