Shipbuilders Turn To Robots In An Effort To Cut Costs


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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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Shipbuilders are automating more of their workforces to lower labor costs after falling oil prices undercut demand for large oil tankers, Bloomberg reports.

Shipbuilding companies such as Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., the world’s largest shipbuilder, are automating critical parts of the construction process to speed up production and lower the cost of tankers. Shipbuilders are acting to stay afloat after boat prices fell roughly 10 percent in the past three years.

While oil prices were high, around $100 a barrel, U.S. ship manufacturers were busy building transporters for an oil industry that wanted to capitalize off a large profit margin. The domestic shipbuilding industry is also protected by the Jones Act, which mandates that cargo between two U.S. ports be carried on a ship built in the U.S. and owned by a U.S. company.

Shipbuilding is a traditionally labor-intensive industry requiring hundreds of workers to build one ship. Hyundai Heavy has begun to revolutionize, however, using robots to fill certain roles for the first time. The company will roll out a robot next year that can shape iron plates for the front and back of the hull, according to Bloomberg.

Another company, South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co., created a small robot capable of making welds in narrow and confined spaces, saving about 4.5 million won, or just over $4,000, per ship.

Shipbuilding has resisted the scale of automation that has taken place in industries like car manufacturing, electronics, plastics and rubber. Car manufactures operate roughly half the industrial robots in use, according to an August Brookings Institute report.

Automation takes over repetitive and formulaic jobs first. Robots for shipbuilding is a challenge, however, because most ships are custom designed and built for a specific customer, Bloomberg reports.

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