South Shields Marine School’s award-winning 3D modelling team is rewriting history – but it could take some time.
To keep pace with technology, the team is upgrading computer files which hold details of their ground-breaking work in ship and port digital modelling from more than 20 years.
Since the late 1990s, the marine school has been one of only two UK centres - and the only teaching college - to create advanced graphics of ships and port and marine landscapes.
They are used by shipping firms for training and by naval architects and civil engineers to check that their own designs will stand up to real world maritime environments.
In that time, the team has made digital models of around 200 vessels and 120 ports or sea areas, saving them as computer files.
Around 30 vessels commonly seen on the seas, and several real life UK ports where clients operate from, have been upgraded in the past eight months.
But with each file taking around 30 hours of work to become compatible with newly installed and hi-tech K-Sim software, created by Norwegian firm Kongsberg, it is a task that my never be completed.
The team must also prioritise new work orders from clients who want their latest ship or port designs confirmed as being flawless by computer checks.
Mel Irving, the marine school’s R&D and Advanced Simulation Manager, said: “The task to upgrade our existing files to this new technology is great, but it is one that must be undertaken.
“South Shields Marine School has been one of the global leaders in 3D modelling and has been crucial to the success of several major international projects.
“We have an enviable digital library of vessels and ports, but the installation of market-leading K-Sim technology means they need to upgraded to become compatible.
“Our team can do this, but the process is very time consuming, although the results are outstanding.”
He added: “A nice problem we have is that we are continuing to win new work from UK and international clients. We are committed to meeting all new orders promptly and effectively.
“This means our focus must be on supplying them with 3D product they require, as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible, so that they can pursue their design plans.
“We want to bring our past work entirely up to date - we have worked very hard at it for many years - but we are very much open to new business as we do so.”
The marine school is the world’s oldest purpose-built maritime training centre and its work in computer modelling has been important to the UK’s rise as a global leader in this field.
Modelling, created by Mel and colleagues Alan Mercer and Karl Shackleton, also allows shipping firms to train key personnel on computer-generated ships’ bridge simulators.
The simulators place them on the bridges they will operate on and in the ports they will sail into.
Such has been the marine school’s expertise in this arena that it was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2019.
Influential to award success was its work supporting Tengizchevroil, Kazakhstan’s state oil company to develop a port and waterway on the Caspian Sea to serve the expansion of the giant Tenzig oilfield.
It also made key computer simulations that ensured Britain’s two new aircraft carriers safely reached the North Sea from their berth on the Firth of Forth in 2017.
K-Sim opens up a new world of powerful graphics and enhanced ‘physical’ simulation features, allowing for improved design or training measures to be added to the team’s final 3D product.
Most important of all is the software’s physics engine, which supports full physical interaction, allowing for collision detection with shore and maritime based objects and vessels.
It allows for computer-generated objects, such as cargo, to be added as and when required to a model, and for precise stress levels of ropes, lines and chains to be measured and incorporated into simulations.
The software does this by surrounding an object, such as a ship or quayside fender, in a 3D ‘mesh’, giving it a physical property that can respond to other generated stimulus and forces.
Previously, a separate image had to be created for each and every visual alteration to a ship or port’s appearance, such as showing a vessel part or fully loaded.
The change to K-Sim is part of a £300,000 three-year investment by the marine school, which was founded in 1861.
Its world-class bridge simulators now run on K-Sim software, replacing Kongsberg’s previous Polaris system.
However, the bulk of investment is in hardware improvements, such as new screens for more defined visuals, consoles, controls and cabling.