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Rafael de Góngora, General Manager, Marine, SENER Group

Rafael de Góngora

By Jack O'Connell 2015-07-07 10:38:03

(Article originally published in May/June 2015 edition.)

“The marine way of thinking” guides Góngora as he prepares for the release this summer of the latest version of SENER’s market-leading FORAN CAD/CAM software. 

Tell us about your background and education.

I was born and raised in Madrid, where I now work. I am a naval architect and marine engineer (M.Sc.) by training and am currently completing my doctoral thesis for a Ph.D. in Marine Engineering from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros Navales of the University of Madrid, the oldest engineering school in Spain. I’ve also completed postgraduate courses in business administration.

Wow! You run a highly successful business and you’re also completing your Ph.D.? How do you do it?

It’s not easy, believe me. I’ll be happy when the degree is done and I can devote more time to my family.

What led you to the field of marine engineering?

A passion for engineering in general and for ships in particular. My childhood reading about the technical advances in ships that allowed Spanish navigators to dominate the sea from the 16 to 18 centuries is probably the root cause of this passion.

You joined SENER in 1994 as a project engineer. Did you work anywhere before that?

Yes. Before joining SENER I worked two years as an analyst and programmer for a big state company in armaments and weapons.

Is the name “SENER” an acronym? What does it stand for?

SENER is the acronym of the surnames of the founders of the company, SENdagorta and ERhardt. Due to its excellent reputation and growing recognition over the years, the name was retained even after the Erhardt family left the company and the Sendagorta family became the sole owner.

Is the company still family-owned?

Yes. The company is 100 percent family-owned. Since its founding in 1956, SENER has survived without receiving any help from government or private sources.

What are its annual revenues, and how many employees does it have?

In 2014 the company’s revenues were €665 million with 2,509 employees.

SENER’s best-known product is FORAN, its pioneering CAD/CAM software program for ship design and construction introduced in 1965. Tell us about that.

Yes, we are celebrating its 50 anniversary this year. FORAN is an acronym (from the Spanish FORmas ANalíticas, or “analytical forms” in English). Everything began with Manuel Sendagorta, then Director of SENER, and his interest in the mathematical representation of the hull forms of vessels. The research studies begun by Sendagorta and his collaborators showed that the use of a mathematical formulation to represent ships’ hulls, combined with the use of computers, could serve not only to describe existing forms but also generate new ones. This was the departure point for the FORAN system, which was conceived to solve real ship design problems that SENER encountered in its own design office.

Following the logical design and production process in shipbuilding, the other disciplines were gradually incorporated into the FORAN system: first naval architectural calculations, then hull structure, outfitting, electrical and accommodation. This logical development strategy, carried out entirely by SENER, has resulted in the current state-of-the-art product, which is a totally integrated CAD/CAM system covering all areas of ship design and production.

When did you decide to commercialize the product?

By 1969 we realized that our in-house solution could very well meet the demands of the shipbuilding industry in general, and the first FORAN software was licensed to what was then known as Bazán (today’s Navantia Group), the largest shipbuilding company in Spain. Today it is used in more than 30 countries around the world and is the industry standard.

How do you keep it current?

Constant evaluation of technological innovations in hardware, operating systems and programming languages has been essential throughout FORAN’s development. Only those solutions have been adopted which guarantee for the user the most portable, reliable and user-friendly product together with the added guarantee of upward compatibility with any future innovations.

Another central concept has been the monitoring of technological innovations and new production processes (build strategy) in the shipyards. With this information and feedback from the industry on what should be included in a CAD/CAM system, together with SENER´s own appreciation of industry requirements, the annual strategic development plan is drawn up. The requirements of FORAN customers are formalized in twice-yearly meetings of selected FORAN users.

There is a phrase I particularly like: “A CAD/CAM/CAE system is a tool, a tool for designing and building ships faster, cheaper and better.” With this objective in mind, FORAN has been developed over the last 50 years, and I am proud to say that we did it right.

What are some notable examples of FORAN-designed ships and offshore structures?

Ships of all types have been designed with FORAN: navy vessels, oil tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, fishing vessels, ferries and ro-pax vessels, dredgers, tugs, sailing vessels, icebreakers. And not just ships but offshore platforms as well like FPSOs and FSUs. Specific examples would include the Texaco Captain (1996), the first FPSO built with the process plant assembled before the launching; the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth (2010) for the Royal Navy, the biggest navy engineering project of the 21 century; the bulk carrier Spring Aeolian (2011), the biggest Panamax bulk carrier built in the world; and the new series of Successor Class nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy, still in the design phase.

Who are some of your key clients?

BAE Systems is one of the biggest FORAN customers. The QE Class of aircraft carriers, the Successor Class of nuclear submarines and the Type 26 frigates are being designed and built with FORAN with excellent results in time and material savings. Other key clients include Navantia, the Spanish navy shipbuilder; Sanoyas in Japan, and WSDDI in China.

What other products and services does the Marine unit of SENER offer?

In addition to FORAN, the Marine unit offers a wide range of services related to ship design and engineering including conceptual projects, basic classification and detailed engineering, consultancy, fleet definition and surveys. In fact, SENER was born in 1956 as a ship design company, and through 59 years we have maintained our initial activity.

What are your goals as head of the Marine unit of SENER?

My objective is to keep SENER in the forefront of technology, making it the reference company not only in the development of marine CAD/CAM/CAE systems but also as a ship design office.

How many offices and employees does the Marine unit have?

The Marine unit has seven offices around the world in six different countries (Spain, UK, Korea, Japan, China and Argentina). We are opening a new office in India. Currently more than 250 people are devoted to Marine activities in SENER.

Do you have operations in the U.S.?

We have been active in the U.S. for many years. In the 1990s Philadelphia Shipyard and Alabama Shipyard were FORAN users, and SENER developed engineering projects for different shipyards. More recently, since 2013 FORAN is being used at Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Florida with complete satisfaction. Nowadays SENER is making special commercial efforts in the U.S. because we see great potential there. Hopefully, we will speak about more FORAN customers in the near future.

What is your fastest growing market, both geographically and revenue-wise?

Nowadays, 86 percent of the commercial shipbuilding market is located in China, Korea and Japan, and therefore the biggest possibilities are in those countries. On top of that, there are other business areas, like navy shipbuilding and offshore, that are strategic for SENER Marine.

Where would you like to see the Marine business in the next five years?

My goal is to establish SENER as the leading CAD/CAM/CAE supplier for the marine industry as well as a reference company for the design of certain types of ships. And I am sure we will get there as we are on the right path. 

The SENER Group has four main business units – Aerospace, Infrastructures & Transport, Power & Process, and Marine. Is Marine the biggest?

No. Today the biggest business unit of SENER is Power & Process where the projects are mainly EPC (engineering, procurement and construction), so their order of magnitude is rather bigger than in other business units. Nevertheless, the birth of SENER as a ship design company and its leadership over two generations (the founder and current president are both naval architects) put the “marine way of thinking” on all its activities.

Are there examples of technology transfer among the four units?

Synergies are one of the main characteristics of the company that we emphasize every day with good results. Regarding the Marine unit, for example, FORAN is being used in the design of the storage tanks of a regasification plant in Europe, and we collaborate with Infrastructures & Transport on all civil works projects for LNG bunkering and harbor activities.

What are some notable non-marine projects of the SENER Group?

Current important non-marine projects of the company include thermal solar power plants, regasification plants, high-speed railways, subway stations, satellite control systems and actuators for missiles.

The SENER Foundation was established in 2003. What are its goals?

The goal of the SENER Foundation is three-fold:

Spread the spirit of SENER’s founders in the search for scientific and technological knowledge and apply this knowledge to engineering projects to better meet society’s needs.

Support the work and training of people and organizations that stand out for their capabilities and initiative, scientific or technological competence, and ethical responsibility, and

Contribute to society’s moral and material progress through scientific and technological projects and programs.

How would you describe your management style?

I manage through determination in pursuing objectives, flexibility in procedures, and freedom of action for those under me – all with regard to a strict complement of laws, regulations and the ethical code of the company.

How would you describe yourself?

Open minded and self-exigent.

Tell us about your extracurricular activities, both in the industry and the community.

I have authored several technical papers presented in international congresses and conferences about shipbuilding and CAD/CAM/CAE systems, and I serve as a Member on behalf of SENER of the Board of Directors of the Basque Maritime Forum.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I spend what little spare time I have reading, walking and enjoying my family.

Have you read any good books lately?

Yes, two of them, completely different, that I enjoyed a lot: The first was Time Travel in Einstein´s Universe by the astrophysicist Richard Gott, a fascinating dissertation about the physical possibilities of travel through time, and A Peace to End All Peace by the historian David Fromkin, a detailed analysis of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the peace treaties that followed and created the modern Middle East. – MarEx

Jack O’Connell is Senior Editor of The Maritime Executive

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.