The RNLI is well known for saving lives at sea along the British coastline. It currently operates 237 lifeboat stations around the country, with a fleet of more than 340 lifeboats.

The RNLI attends over 15,000 incidents annually, with an average of 24 people rescued each day. Keeping their equipment well-maintained is therefore of critical importance to their rescue operations. It can also make a huge difference to the charity’s finances, as daily wear and tear on equipment can cost up to £260,000 per year.

BU’s Dr Ben Thomas started working with the charity to analyse its slipway design to improve performance and reduce damage to both the slipways and the boats as part of his PhD. This direct collaboration shows how the fusion of education, research and professional practice leads to innovative solutions to real-world problems.

In order to prevent friction damage to launch slipways, lifeboat crewmen would apply a layer of grease, but long-term use had both environmental and safety implications.

Through working Ben, a solution was developed which led to the redesign of slipway panels, thus doubling their lifespan. A move from grease to a water-based lubricant also helped to reduce the environmental damage caused.

During his research, Ben analysed the contact conditions between the 15cm-wide keel of a 35 tonne lifeboat during a 45mph launch. His analysis led to a number of recommendations:

  • Ensuring all slipway panels are aligned along the full length of the slipway
  • Making a small change to panel geometry to incorporate a chamfer to significantly reduce wear development
  • Introducing a new water-based slipway lubrication system, rather than applying grease directly to the slipway, which would reduce operational costs and the environmental impact of slipway launches
  • In the interim, substitute marine grease lubrication with biodegradable grease, which reduces the effects of grease bioaccumulation at the base of the slipway.

The university also prepared a slipway guidance design document for the RNLI to help the charity’s technical staff follow best practice when installing and maintaining slipways.

Since 2008, the new water-based slipway lubrication system has been introduced to more than one-third of RNLI lifeboat stations, enabling the charity to increase the number of standby lifeboats that are ready to engage and save lives at sea.

The development has also helped the RNLI make cost savings of approximately £200k per year, in addition to improving crew safety and RNLI launch reliability, while reducing maintenance downtime and machine failure.

After completing his PhD, Ben was appointed as a Lecturer in Sustainable Design at BU, giving him the opportunity to pass on the wealth of knowledge gained through this and the other projects he’s worked on to the next generation of engineers. Ben has been instrumental in developing sustainable design teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2009, encouraging our students to develop creative solutions to engineering problems, supported by a wealth of scientific evidence and experience.