In 2024, Robert Allan Ltd will celebrate 96 years of continuous business. The fullness of that history is well-documented in the recently published “Workboats for the World: The Robert Allan Story”, a book about a company, about the family that built it, and about the many people whose efforts have helped to make Robert Allan Ltd. a Canadian success story in the global maritime world. It is also, of course, about the thousands of working vessels around the world which have been designed by the company over the better part of a century. (

A naval architect by name and a naval architect by nature. For nearly a century, this family business grew well to tell a story of the ship designing craft that spanned generations and shaped a prestigious name in the naval architecture industry.

Robban Assafina wanted to share this success story, the history, the challenges, the milestones and the future. Executive Chairman Engineer Robert Allan, eloquently discusses these fascinating intricacies.

In 1928, Robert Allan (Sr.) began working as an independent naval architect in Vancouver after a successful career in shipyards in Scotland, England and Canada. In 1945 he was joined by his son Robert F. (Bob) Allan. Through the 1950’s the duo, working from a basement office in the family home, provided many designs for local fishboats, tugs, barges, ferries and diverse patrol craft. In the 1960’s the company grew significantly, developing many designs for new steel, diesel-powered tugs and specialized barges for many coastal transportation systems.


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In 1973 Robert G. (Rob) Allan joined the business, at a time when there was high demand for many unique ice-capable vessels for offshore oil exploration, as well as numerous coastal and inland vessels throughout Canada.

In 1981 Bob Allan passed away, leaving company direction to Rob Allan, still in his early ‘30’s. The next few years were very difficult, as the global recession was felt throughout all marine industries and the small design company struggled to survive.

In the early 1990’s the growing demand for new, more powerful tugs offered opportunities for Robert Allan Ltd. to create a new generation of safer, high-performance tugs. The internet made access to global markets much easier, freeing us from the vagaries of local industry economics, and our international business rapidly accelerated.

The regulated demand for tanker escort, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez (USA) and Braer (UK) incidents enabled Robert Allan Ltd to test and introduce innovative new ideas about escort tug design and performance which dramatically changed the look and abilities of this new genre.

Technical achievements notwithstanding, the transition of the company from individual family ownership to all-employee ownership in 2008 was probably the single most important event in our corporate history. This change enabled the long-term viability of the company and its continued success and international growth under first Ken Harford and then Mike Fitzpatrick since that time are testimony to this.

Starting a consulting business in the throes of the Great Depression was extremely difficult, and only by sheer perseverance did the founder survive those first very difficult years. By the mid-‘30‘s work had begun to arrive, just sufficient to make a living for a small family. Wartime brought increased design work however and fortunes improved.


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The next major challenge was the recession of the early ‘80’s when work was very scarce, coupled with the death of Bob Allan. Survival was uncertain through to the late ‘80’s, after which work slowly increased.

As work expanded, the major challenge became recruiting the necessary skilled personnel to grow our business. Fortunately, at that time emigration from eastern Europe and from Asia brought many highly-qualified design professionals to Canada, many of whom are now principals in the company. The major challenge today remains that of attracting skilled professionals to join our thriving company. 

Significant Achievements
A century of design work reflects numerous true innovations by Robert Allan Ltd in the world of workboat design. Impossible to describe in any detail in this short article, these include the concept for self-loading/self-dumping log barges, introduction of widespread use of the Kort Nozzle in North America, the concept of the “Compact Tug”, first icebreaking supply vessels for the Beaufort Sea, and quad-screw, very shallow-draft river tugs for northern Canada. Since 1990 the company is credited with designing more than 1000 modern high-performance tugboats for a global clientele, and in particular the development of the RAstar hull form for optimum escort towing capability, and the Red Dot Award-winning Z-Tech tug concept. Most recent developments include the ElectRA series of all-electric ship-handling tugs.

Advice for Young Professionals
I can think of no more satisfying career than that of a naval architect, assuming of course that one has a true affinity for boats and the sea. Not without its challenges in facing fluctuating demands for our talents, today the entire industry is on course to revolutionize the modern harbourfront with tugs and similar workboats with myriad forms of electric and hybrid propulsion, alternative fuels, and more efficient hull forms. It is the most exciting time to be a ship design professional in 50 years.

My advice to anyone embarking on such a career today would be to study hard, look around you at what is going on in the world today and see where improvements should be made, really learn the basics of our craft, learn as much as you can about what these boats do, how they are built and how they operate so you can design sensibly, and then really get to know as much as possible about electricity and electronics. With that background you will find your services in high demand for many years!

Whatever you do, make sure the boat you’re designing looks good as well as functions efficiently. There is no excuse ever for an ugly boat!

Future Trends
As indicated above, the future is here, and it arrived much faster than any of us in the business expected. We designed the world’s first hybrid tug 15 years ago, and today a large proportion of our new designs involve some form of propulsion other than direct diesel drive, and many involve alternative fuels. 

The industry is on a steep learning curve, but the technological advances have been rapid and effective.  The all-electric harbour tugboat is here to stay and will continue to evolve. Look for more advances in unmanned vessels and advanced automation systems as the industry struggles to recruit new personnel to a shipboard life. Enjoy the ride!

By: Robert G. Allan 
    P.Eng.(ret), FRINA, HMSNAME, FEC
    Executive Chairman, Robert Allan Ltd.


Robban Assafina, Issue 89, Jan./ Feb. 2024, Maritime News - Shipbuilding, pg. 65


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Issue 89 of Robban Assafina

(Jan./ Feb. 2024)


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