Labor shortages have hit shipyards hard. Can technology help Newport News bounce back?

Part of CVN-80’s rear is held in place by Newport News Shipbuilding’s towering crane, nicknamed “Big Blue”.

WASHINGTON — Amid an economy still recovering from the peaks of the coronavirus pandemic, HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding officials say a technology transition, years in the making, is helping them battle a tough job market .

When HII launches the last USS Enterprise (CVN-80) later this decade, it will be the “first time in our history, and I believe in the history of the Navy, that the ship is not just designed in 3D [computer-aided design] tool, but now we’re taking that 3D information and putting it on a digital device and allowing our shipbuilders to build with that,” said Brian Fields, NNS Vice President for Enterprise Carriers and the Next Aircraft Carrier. to be built, the Doris Miller (CVN-81).

3D technology is part of a larger modernization push that also includes the digitization of thousands of paper records and design documents, the pace of which has been determined by the time it takes to develop software up to the task. .

“We use an analogy: it’s like driving downtown [Washington] DC with a paper map against [using] Waze,” Fields told reporters over the weekend, referring to a popular navigation app for smartphones. “Why this is so important is that with the number of new shipbuilders that we are bringing into the business now, and over the next five or 10 years, we are seeing their time to master plummet. “

The proliferation of technology, widely used to assemble the Navy’s next aircraft carrier inside the company’s dry dock off the James River, plays a key role in training new employees entering faster in the shipyard, despite increased difficulties in hiring as the country recovers from the damage caused by COVID-19. “We’re able to give them more difficult tasks without the same oversight because they know what’s being asked of them,” Fields said of his employees.

The national labor shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been felt by most industries across the country, and shipbuilders are no exception. One of HII’s main competitors in the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding world, General Dynamics, told Breaking Defense in February that people were the company’s “biggest challenge” at its shipyard based in San Diego.

Shipbuilders are particularly vulnerable to labor market peaks and troughs because work, even in the best of times, often fluctuates from year to year. When defense budgets are high and the navy has the confidence of legislators, shipbuilders reap the benefits of having multiple ships in production, which translates into the freedom to hire and train new workers en masse. . But when budgets go down, so do payrolls. This forces shipbuilders to lay off or lay off simply because there isn’t enough work in the pipeline to keep everyone busy.

“They go out, they come in, they go out, they come back,” Rick Giannini, chairman of an industry coalition representing the aircraft carrier supply base, told reporters on pre-COVID-19 hiring.

It’s a difficult balance, but one that the defense industry was used to trying to find. Then the coronavirus spread globally and all bets were off.

“They started going out, [but] they don’t come back… At the end of the year, we lost 10, 12%,” Giannini said of his own company, a valve manufacturing company.

The view from inside the drydock

While the shift from stacks of paper to laptops and tablets is theoretically a leap forward, that doesn’t mean it comes without growing pains. In an interview with reporters last Friday, the shipbuilders described the cultural challenges inherent in the exchange.

“You know, the thing is, these guys who have been here for 40 years, 30 years. They’re used to seeing things a certain way, so they have to adapt to that,” said Rodney Taylor, NNS foreman on CVN-80.

“But I like the fact that when I plan, it goes a long way. I can actually look at the work before I get my hands on it and have a better understanding of the location [and the] requirements needed to do the job. It helps a lot in that aspect, but… I’m still learning myself,” he added.

Todd Meier, an NNS facilities engineer who served as a sailor on the former Enterprise (CVN-65) and worked on the ship as a shipyard employee during its decommissioning, said if the tools technologies have helped train and qualify new workers, there are a few tricks to getting the job done that need to be experienced.

“There is an urgent need to capture this set of skills that disappears every year due to retirements and attrition. And these skills can only be taught physically,” he said of tips and tricks. methods welders use to make more difficult welds or reach hard-to-reach areas.

How much these new tools speed up the final construction of CVN-80 and CVN-81, only time will tell. But the moves will certainly be watched closely by HII and the US Navy as the two consider the possibility of another bulk purchase for CVN-82 ​​and CVN-83.

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