Newport News shipyard moving into digital age

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

The transformation taking place at Newport News Shipbuilding might be compared to that day when motorists put away their road maps and switched to GPS.

Slowly but surely, shipbuilders are trading in paper drawings for a computer tablet or other digital device to get a clearer picture of how to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

To hasten that transformation, a giant classroom on wheels soon will be prowling the 550-acre yard. The company has invested an undisclosed sum in a Digital Transformation Trailer built by SPEVCO, a specialty vehicles company whose clients include the U.S. Army, the Dallas Cowboys and Coca-Cola.

Shipyard officials offered a sneak peak inside the trailer Thursday in advance of its formal rollout next week at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Maryland. Rather than force shipbuilders to adjourn to a classroom, the trailer will allow them to train closer to where they work.

"We're going to use this vehicle to take the training to them," said Brian Fields, vice president of integrated planning and production control. "We can take this to various spots on the waterfront, set it up quickly, and people will be able to leave their work site to get the requisite training and have the new skills to go back and work in a digital environment."

It also has uses beyond the shipyard. The classroom can be rolled into a middle school parking lot to show students that it's really cool to build ships. It can be placed near the General Assembly building or Capitol Hill to impress politicians who control defense dollars or industrial development funds.

While officials won't say how much the trailer cost, Fields said the company is confident it will pay dividends in speeding the move to digital shipbuilding, where he said the company already is seeing "great returns."

"It's not necessarily changing the wrench-turning time," he said, "but it's allowing you to spend more time turning wrenches."

The high-tech approach also appeals to the new generation of shipbuilders who grew up with smartphones and tablets. More of those younger workers likely will stream through the gates in 2017. The shipyard plans to hire 3,000 new employees this year.

The trailer's roomy interior holds a series of touch-screen workstations that can be reconfigured for various trades involved in building nuclear-powered warships. With digital drawings, a shipbuilder can examine a giant steel component as a 3-D image, flipping it over and moving it around to get a perspective not found on paper drawings.

It shows how to assemble that component in a series of steps. The model even shows the proper way to lift the assembly off the ground when finished.

Tony Raasch, a ship-fitter with three years of experience, says working with digital plans saves time and cuts down on mistakes.

"You talk to anybody at the shipyard," he said. "You can read that drawing for 10 years and still find stuff in it you have never seen before. This takes all that away. The information is right there."

Another station demonstrates augmented reality, which overlays digital images on a real surface. It's similar to the technology that powers Pokemon Go or allows a third-down line to appear on the field in an NFL broadcast.

Wearing a set of goggles, augmented reality engineer Lauren Hamburg faced a mockup of a watertight door. Running a maintenance application, the digital images showed her where to rope off the area for safety and where to apply lubrication.

To the civilian, such a high-tech tool might sound like overkill for a relatively simple job. But most civilians haven't worked on aircraft carriers.

"There are about 42 kinds of watertight doors on a ship," she said, "and they all remarkably similar, especially when they've been painted the same shade of gray."

Another workstation showed how digital shipbuilding can help supervisors.

Jason Ipock, a general foreman, tapped on a digital representation of a compartment. As his finger touched the image of a door, it popped up in red. A corresponding screen showed all the sequential steps needed to construct that door, along with a schedule.

When this technology is employed on the waterfront, it allows a supervisor to know immediately when a project is off-kilter.

Before this, "you had to rely on a (senior) supervisor to say, 'Something doesn't feel right. I don't know if we'll be able to capture the time we lost,'" Ipock said. "Now you can say, 'This is what we've got to do.'"

The shipyard's ascent into the digital age won't take the place of hands-on training. Buildings set aside for teaching trades like welding or machining will continue, said Jeff Speight, the shipyard's technical skills training manager who will be a big user of the new trailer.

What will change is how the information is delivered and how quickly it can be updated. As the transition proceeds, the shipyard expects to transform its mentoring process as well. No longer will it always be senior employees teaching younger ones. Newer shipbuilders like Raasch now have something to offer.

"You get more of the older guys approaching you," he said. "It's kind of turned the tables. Yeah, they've built it before, but they don't remember exactly how that one piece went. When I'm standing there holding a tablet, he'd rather come over and look at that picture than try and figure it out from a drawing."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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