Digital Shipbuilding

Integrating Digital Data Into Shipbuilding

Newport News Shipbuilding is embracing digital data like never before in building aircraft carriers. From eliminating paper drawings and work instructions to using product model data to plan wire ways, digital data is finding its way into the heart of every process at the shipyard—and is already saving money on construction of John F. Kennedy (CVN 79).

A Drawingless Future

After more than 125 years of using two-dimensional paper drawings, the shipyard has set its sights on a “drawingless” future, where work instructions are packaged and delivered electronically.

“We believe that migrating to an integrated digital enterprise, without the need for traditional drawings, will transform the way we build ships and provide Newport News the competitive edge necessary to maintain and grow our business over the coming decades,” said Jennifer Boykin, the shipyard’s vice president, engineering and design.

Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is the Navy's first aircraft carrier to be completely designed using a 3-dimensional product model. Pictured above, Newport News engineer Tosha Revere demonstrates the immersive Rapid Operational Virtual Reality (ROVR) system used to visualize spaces on Ford. Photo by John Whalen / HII

The migration is already bearing fruit. To date, 14 work packages on Kennedy have been completed using “visual work instructions” provided on hand-held tablets. Later in 2015, more than 200 similar work packages will be used to build several of Kennedy’s giant units known as superlifts. The shipyard plans on reducing even more paper drawings while construction of Kennedy is still ongoing and anticipates that the cost savings on Enterprise (CVN 80) and the unnamed CVN 81 will be even greater.

For the shipbuilders starting to use the 3-D instructions on tablets, the experience is revolutionary. The paper drawing work packages often demand extra time spent researching procedures, dimensions and other items before they can actually start the work.

“I looked at this [visual work instruction] for three minutes, and I already understand everything I have to do for this package. This saves me a lot of time.” said Aaron Wikle, a pipefitter using the visual work instructions on Kennedy.

Lasers and Intelligent Marking

Digital data is not just being delivered to people. It’s also being fed to machines.

The wire ways that run throughout the ship hang from studs welded to the ceiling. On Ford, those studs—which number in the hundreds of thousands—were laid out and installed after the units were assembled. Picture shipbuilders on ladders, reading 2-D drawings, grinding and welding the steel overhead. Let’s just say it was time-consuming.

On Kennedy, intelligent marking is drastically improving the process. Data from the 3-D product model is being fed to a machine that marks the steel plates with the locations of each stud  in the shop before the steel becomes part of a unit. This saves shipbuilders from the time-consuming task of manually marking the stud locations overhead. A related benefit is avoiding “hot work” overhead. All the shipbuilders have to do now is stand on the steel plate and install the studs already marked out for them, which is much safer and quicker than the same job done overhead.

It’s not only safer—it’s smarter. As of July 2015, more than 47,000 studs have been marked or installed using the new process. Because the work is done earlier in the construction process, the units will be more complete when they are assembled—all resulting in fewer man-hours.

Google Maps for Wire Ways

If you’ve ever used Google Maps to get directions, you’ve benefited from a powerful algorithm that searches for the optimal route to a destination. On Kennedy, engineers and designers developed software based on the common algorithm used by Google Maps, using it to find the optimal route for installing electrical cables throughout the ship.

“In the same amount of space as a Nimitz-class carrier, we had to fit another 1.3 million feet of cable into the Ford-class,” said electrical engineering manager Gordon Mount. “That meant we were constantly solving traffic jams in our wire ways … too many cables converging at an intersection. On Kennedy, we analyzed pinch points and added new wire ways or grew existing ones to accommodate the additional cable traffic.  Now that we have met the initial challenge, we manage change while further optimizing new wire ways finding the best cable routes available, the results are shorter cables and lower cable and installation costs.”

The automated routing software is saving the team thousands of man-hours in both problem-solving and putting together work packages. If a piece of equipment has to move—and its assigned cable with it—the engineers can now see the shortest path to run the cable. Down the line, that means less re-routing for the electricians pulling the nearly 10 million feet of cable through the ship.

Seeing Digital Data Used on Physical Work

Augmented reality (AR), which overlays the digital world onto the physical, is another technology being tested as a cost-saving initiative for building the Ford class. Newport News is leading the industry in developing AR for shipbuilding, already demonstrating countless uses, including being able to walk into a space and see objects that physically aren’t there yet.

Right now, the most economical viewing window is an iPad, but in the future, shipbuilders’ safety glasses could allow them to see digital information overlaid onto the work surface hands-free. For example, on Kennedy, the technology could be used to help cut time in building complex assemblies. Seeing the 3-D model in the context of a physical space takes a lot of difficult interpretation out of the equation.

Newport News augmented reality engineers use an iPad to inspect a location for a pipe installation on a steel plate - before the pipe assembly exists. Augmented reality is being used to visualize the product model in the context of spaces, but has many other potential applications such as displaying safety warnings, work instructions and more. Photo by John Whalen / HII

The Digital End-Game

As the shipyard continues to weave digital data into its future, one reality remains constant. People will still build the ships. Ultimately, digital data is another tool in the hands of shipbuilders, whose experience and determination ultimately get the job done. The digital end game at Newport News doesn’t replace people—it empowers them.

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