Dipl.-Ing. Jürgen Friesch: 100 years of research for efficient ships

How efficiently a ship transports its freight, how effectively it copes with wind and waves and what its CO2 balance is has not been left to chance for a long time. At the Hamburg Ship Model Basin, engineers use models to test the effects of environmental phenomena and hydrodynamic influences on hull constructions.

Until early modern times, shipbuilding was – more than anything else – a handicraft. The term “master of shipbuilding”, which was commonly used everywhere well into the 19th century and which concealed not only recognised technical competence but also social prestige in a harbour town, gives an idea of this background. Coping with the timeless shipbuilding problems and hence the gradual continued developments in shipbuild­ing took place exclusively based on practical experience, in other words, empirically.

German shipbuilding has an international preface going back over several centuries. Requirements for design-based research technology capable of being applied to daily prac­tice lie in the definition of measurement tasks for eval­uating designs, in the research facilities and measuring equipment, in the methods for evaluating experiments and for prognoses for the full-scale product. These requirements were initially gradually cre­­at­ed via many stages with major contributions from sci­­entists such as Huygens, Mariotte, Newton, Chapman, D’Alembert, Van Zwijndrecht, Beaufoy, John Scott Russell, Reech, William und Robert Froude, David Taylor and many others. As a result of these developments, it was possible to mark an initial level which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was also relevant for to the found­ing of German re­search centres.

Since the 1880s/1890s, Imperial Ger­­many had seen a gigantic economic upturn. Merchant shipping, the Im­­perial Navy and the shipbuilding industry all pulled to­­gether and, until 1914, moved up to second place behind Great Brit­­ain. Thus, highly-­specialised technical and mar­­i­time expertise was gained based on the British example, but finally went its own way. The technical engineering col­­leges, for ex­­ample in Charlottenburg (1879) and Danzig (1904), to­­gether with the German Society for Maritime Tech­­nology (STG), formed in 1899, developed during that time.

As the largest German port, with its concentration of well-­known shipping companies and shipyards, Ham­burg finally became the location for the leading Ger­man shipbuilding research institute. The Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA) was formed in 1913 as a private company with the aim of carrying out independent research and development work and services for the maritime industry. The HSVA’s labour pains lasted for over ten years. That was the time it took until the negotiations on the necessity for a major hydro-dynamic testing institute in Germany – especially for com­­mercial shipping – lead to the foundation of the HSVA.
The owners of the company today are still 20 companies from all areas of the German maritime industry. Today, the HSVA is one of the world’s leading research centres. It operates experimental facilities of the highest interna­tional standards such as the Large Towing Tank (measured by the transverse section of one of the world’s largest tanks), the ice-tank and the large cavitation tunnel HYKAT, which, along with the qualified employees, justify this position. Besides the research facilities, so­­­phisticated software developed in-house is used for numerical simulations. The development pro­jects are primarily carried out for the maritime industry but also for the aviation industry.


The backbone of every shipbuilding research institute are, besides committed, well-trained employees, the ex­­perimental facilities. Thus, a large towing tank with an adjoining manoeuvering basin was built in 1913. And the first cavitation tunnel, which may be regarded as the forerunner of all subsequent closed cavitation tunnels worldwide, was built in the 1930s. The end of the Second World War seemed at first to mean the end of the re­­search institute. The facilities had been destroyed to a large extent, but fortunately, its work continued.

The foundation stone for the new HSVA was laid on 22 February 1952 and the first experimental facilities were operating by 22 October the same year: an 80-metre long towing channel, a 25-metre diameter manoeuvring basin and a shallow-water tank. To continue the ex­­cep­tionally good research in the field of propellers, the first post-war cavitation tunnel was built in 1954. A new, 200-metre long, 18-metre wide towing tank followed in 1957 with a corresponding towing carriage. A wave generator was added in 1959; the tank was extended by 100 metres to 300 metres a little later. A second, far larger and much faster cavitation tunnel was completed in 1960. The construction of an ice tank in 1984 is also a re­­action to the changed requirements of shipping, as ships travelling in icy seas gained importance. Being 78 metres long, ten metres wide and five metres deep, this experimental facility is still one of the largest of its type in the world. A new hydrodynamics and cavitation tunnel (HYKAT) was commissioned in 1988, repre­senting a further worldwide milestone in the construction of facilities for improving ship propellers. In 2011, an investment, which is also unique in the world, was made with the financial assistance by the state of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg: a side wave generator for the big towing tank measuring 40 metres in length, which makes it possible to investigate ships and offshore structures under realistic sea conditions. A facility of this nature has never been installed in an existing towing tank before.

By the beginning of this century, the HSVA succeeded in regaining a leading position among the internationally operating shipbuilding research institutions through these considerable investments and intensive research. To date, the main work is related to complex hydrodynamic questions which can only be solved by specially trained ex­­perts with the help of experiments in sophisticated re­­search facilities or with complex calculation methods, to whose development the HSVA has also made an enormous contribution over the last few years.

The technical progress achievable in constructing new ships depends strongly on what sort of know-how already has been gained in research projects and what is available for a current project: it is precisely here that the Ship Model Basin plays a major role. It is a middle man between universities and industry.

Marine hydromechanics is and remains a very import­ant basis for the construction of economic and safe ships and has not yet reached the end of its development by any means. In particular, the numerical solution of flow problems (CFD) still has a great future. How­­ever, the developments in this field do not make experimental techniques superfluous. On the contrary, they will be accompanied by more demanding and complex tasks. And ice technology still conceals great research and development potential. The issue of climate change has also gained political and social significance, which was hardly foreseeable a few years ago. The emis­­sions generated by ships contribute significantly to climate change and must therefore be reduced. In fu­­ture, the competitiveness of ships will not depend solely on their load capacity. Rather, fuel consumption will play an increasingly important role. En­­ergy-efficient ships will not only help the environment but, thanks to lower oper­ating costs, will be able to achieve competitive advantages over a longer period. The develop­ment of these types of ships means a major opportunity for the HSVA.

Besides its work as a service provider for the shipbuilding industry, the Hamburg Ship Model Basin also gains considerable importance as a pioneer for new devel­opments and as a technology multiplier. The research and development work carried out there is quickly transported into industrial practice and applied in actual projects. This applies to new numeric and experimental procedures, for example. Car­­rying out applied research and development in cooperation with universities and business partners with the aim of developing quickly-­usable prod­ucts, forms one fo the fundamental tasks of the HSVA as a leading German shipbuilding research institute.

The market and the environment of the HSVA have be­­come increasingly more internationally oriented over the last few years. This means both new technical challen­ges and new competitive situations. While shipbuilding research institutes primarily served the national do­­mes­tic market in the past, today they find their main area of activity in those countries to which the majority of shipbuilding has been transferred. Essentially, these are Korea, China and Japan.
In contrast to some other research institutes around the world, the HSVA retained and even increased its personnel in 2009 and 2010. This is due to the belief that reduced research and development capacity could conceivably lead to a technological gape which would weaken the position of the Hamburg facility around the world and tend more to reinforce its competitors. A reinforced concentration on sophisticated ship types is therefore indispensable. We must now address the ques­­tion „What will ships and their systems and marine struc­­tures look like in five, ten or even twenty years?“ What market potential will develop and what solutions will need to be developed? Through their worldwide activities, the engineers of the HSVA will be able to help to provide a key response to this existential question.

The fact that, in spite of the crisis in shipping, 2013 was a very successful year for the HSVA, confirms this assumption.

The author, who is a graduate engineer, has been a member of the Hamburg Ship Model Basin since 1979, where he worked for over 20 years in the propeller and cavitation departments, initially as a scientist, then as a project engi­neer and finally as departmental head. His main areas of work are the correlation of model and final value data concerning the effectiveness of ships’ propellers and the development of test facilities for understanding cavitation. He played a major role in designing the cavitation tunnel HYKAT and was responsible for operating the plant. He has been managing director of the HSVA since 2004.