Austal USA took a gamble several years ago when it invested millions to construct a new shipbuilding facility in Mobile, Ala., ahead of winning a Navy contract. When it became the sole builder of the joint high speed vessel — its target program — yard officials were elated.
The shipbuilder in December found more reason to celebrate after the Navy awarded another contract, this time to construct 10 of its newest surface combatant, the littoral combat ship. Austal’s offering, based on a commercial-derived aluminum trimaran hull, is one of two LCS designs. Rival Lockheed Martin Corp. was also awarded a contract to build 10 more of its steel monohull version of the ship at Fincanteri Marine Group-owned Marinette Marine Corp., a shipbuilder located in Marinette, Wis.
Austal USA President Joseph Rella hopes to reap efficiencies from building both JHSV and LCS at the same time.
“While LCS is a much more complex and larger vessel, there still are a lot of commonalities between the two ships,” he said.
The hulls share the same structural aluminum and geometry of extruded panels. They also run on the same model main propulsion diesel engines. Suppliers are providing the same aerodynamic fins, ride control components and software on both vessels. General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems serves as the ship systems integrator on both programs.
To accommodate LCS, officials are pushing ahead with plans to construct the second half of its 360,000-square foot modular manufacturing facility. The current building, 1,000 feet long by 360 feet wide, is laid out as a moving assembly line. A variety of machinery shops radiate from the production line to help workers fabricate parts that connect to modules as they travel down the length of the building. The modules are then transported to the final assembly bay where workers weld the parts into the hull.
The building extension will mirror the first assembly line’s layout. The ultimate goal is a 720,000-square foot facility through which both JHSV and LCS will be built. Rather than allot each program a specific side of the building, officials envision running the ship modules through in tandem. “We’ll try to optimize that as much as we can between both sides so periodically we’ll have a mix of modules from one line or the other,” Rella said.
Churning out two or three LCSs a year, along with one, two, or even three JHSVs at the same time comes down to a manpower issue more than a facilities issue, said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America.
Austal furloughed some of its construction force because of a production gap between its commercial Hawaiian super ferry and the LCS. But officials last year hired 800 new employees to bring the total force to 1,800 people. The yard in the next three years plans to more than double its numbers to reach steady-state production with current orders, said Rella. The ramp up of 2,000 more workers is expected to commence shortly before construction begins this summer on LCS-6 — the first of the block buy of 10 littoral combat ships and the yard’s third Independence-class LCS.
That could put the yard in contention for more work. Navy officials in particular have expressed a desire to build a fleet of 23 JHSVs. So far, 10 ships are in the budget.
“I think they’re very affordable,” said Carnevale. “I think we’ll get to 20 or more between the Army and the Navy.” The two services are jointly purchasing the fleet of ships.
If the Navy sticks with a two-per-year delivery rate, then Austal could easily support that demand, Rella said. “Frankly, I think we’re going to get efficiencies down to a point where we could even approach the Navy and say, ‘Would you like it sooner?’” he said.
Officials are seeing a 20 percent improvement between JHSV-1 and JHSV-2, which started production recently. “We will be much better and much more efficient in a couple of years, or even in a year, than where we are today,” Rella said. “I think we’ll see significant productivity gains going forward simply because the design will be stable sooner.”