Alum Don Liu, Major Contributor to Safer Superships, Recalls UA Journey

PhD Mechanical Engineering


Alum Don Liu, Major Contributor to Safer Superships, Recalls UA Journey
Don Liu adapted aerospace research techniques to kickstart the development of modern superships.

The University of Arizona is 400 miles from the nearest ocean, but it played a key role in revolutionizing the shipping industry.

One of this story’s heroes is College of Engineering alumnus Don Liu. Just two years into his professional career, Liu lent his computer programming skills to the design of super-sized ships. The result was even bigger -- and safer -- ships.

Beginning in the 1960s, advancements in computer applications to structural engineering were accelerating, and so was the size of ships. The new superships were more than 1,000 feet long, but they were scaled-up models of older vessels in the 500-foot range. Naval architects in the mid-20th century didn’t even need slide rules. They simply defined a ship’s length and breadth then opened a book of classification rules. The book contained specifications for frame spacing and plate thicknesses derived from decades of safe operating performance, observation, data gathering and analysis.

No one knew how the superships would perform over the long run. Safety authorities were worried. And disasters like the 1967 wreck of the supertanker Torrey Canyon, which struck a reef off the southwestern coast of England and spilled about 32 million gallons of crude oil, fueled concerns about shipping safety.

At the same time the ship industry was scaling up, so was the airline industry. Bigger planes that flew higher and faster, including the Boeing 747, were in development, and the shipping industry took notice. When Chevron needed help with the design of its first supertanker, it approached Boeing about the company’s finite element analysis software for aircraft design.

Although Boeing didn’t give Chevron access to the software, Boeing’s head of structures referred Chevron to Hussein Kamel, a rising star in the field of finite element analysis. Kamel, now professor emeritus, had just joined the UA aerospace and mechanical engineering faculty.

In addition to finite element analysis, the development of shipping industry-specific design software required expertise in naval architecture and computer programming. Through a college friendship between Chevron Shipping’s vice president and the American Bureau of Shipping’s senior vice president, Kamel’s ideal candidate was identified: Don Liu.

That was 1968, and Liu had only been with ABS, an international organization focused on ship design standards and safety, for two years. His resume included BS and MS degrees from MIT, with emphasis on computer-aided design and the use of computers in naval architecture, and service as a deck officer after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Liu’s assignment: the Arizona Project. Before leaving ABS’s New York headquarters, Liu asked how long he’d be working in Tucson. “Oh, a few months,” Liu recalled the boss saying.

Liu’s UA campus sojourn lasted 3.5 years. He worked with Kamel and Chevron Shipping engineer Bill Reid on a software suite called DAISY, or Displacement Automated Integrated System, initially designed to perform finite element analysis on supertanker designs.

The early days of the supership design revolution employed tools now considered primitive. Desktop computers with graphical user interfaces did not exist 40 years ago.

“We used mainframes and IBM punch cards,” Liu remembered, adding that the calculations for shipping design analysis could tie up a mainframe computer for up to 15 hours.

“Today, you can use a laptop and come up with the answer in three minutes,” he said.

To understand how finite element analysis software works, picture a fishnet made of squares that hugs the surface of the ship being designed. Each square is called an element, and it has attributes like thickness, elasticity and strength. The corner of each square is called a node, and it can mathematically “react” to a load.

With this software, which also included a ship hydrodynamics component, naval architects could create computer models of ships under the real-life loads and stresses caused by high seas, storms and cargo shifting. The ability to identify potential weaknesses during the design stage meant that the shipping industry could build and deploy larger vessels -- and be assured of their strength and structural safety.

The application of such analysis to the design process brought ship hydrodynamics and ship structural design together. One field was no longer racing ahead of the other. And those books of classification rules? They became part of the software.

Liu is quick to point out, however, that information technology can only take engineers so far.

“You better know the answer before you run the software,” Liu said, echoing his mentor Kamel. “A lot of people don’t understand the theory; they run the program and believe that whatever answer comes out is correct.”

Liu began working on a mechanical engineering PhD during the Arizona Project, but the demands of work and a growing family meant he couldn’t be a full-time student.

“I did my research and dissertation in absentia,” recalled Liu, who completed the doctoral requirements in 1978 and continued with his ABS career.

Liu is widely renowned as the “Father of ABS SafeHull,” a ship design evaluation system founded on engineering first principles and recognized as one of the most significant contributions toward enhanced ship safety.

Liu’s work has been honored through election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2011, and numerous awards, including the Gibbs Brothers Medal, given by the National Academy of Sciences for outstanding contributions in naval architecture and marine engineering, the U.S. Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award, and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers’ David W. Taylor Medal. He retired as executive vice president and chief technology officer of ABS in 2004 but continues as a consultant.

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