Augmented Reality Could Help Solve Ford-Class Carrier Cost Woes

By Allyson Versprille
When working on complex projects such as building aircraft carriers, shipyard workers have to endure a painstaking process over the course of several years, adhering to stringent military requirements on quality, safety and accuracy. 

Executives at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the Huntington Ingalls division that is constructing the Navy’s next-generation Ford-class supercarriers, said new technology employing digital design and construction could help reduce labor hours and lower acquisition costs for the program, which has endured criticism by lawmakers for budget overruns and delays.

In June, Rear Adm. Tom Moore, program executive officer for aircraft carriers, told reporters that the Ford-class program could save $1 billion by decreasing the man hours needed to construct CVN-79, the USS John F. Kennedy, by 18 percent compared to CVN-78, the USS Gerald R. Ford. 

Augmented reality (AR) technology — which takes a real-world environment and supplements it with computer-generated sensory data such as graphics — could help achieve that goal, according to executives at the shipbuilding company. The technology originated from designing the Ford-class carrier with 3D modeling, said Patrick Ryan, the company’s engineering manager. The shipbuilder wanted to use the electronic and digital information it had generated, place it into the hands of its workers, and “turn it from more than just a design tool … into a construction tool,” he said.

Using augmented reality in construction could result in significant time and cost savings because it makes the shipbuilder’s work simpler and faster, he noted. “Materials are going to cost what materials cost,” Ryan said. “But can I make the shipbuilder more efficient by giving him a better set of instructions?”

Traditionally, an engineer will communicate a ship’s design to a skilled craftsman or worker — a shipfitter, a painter, a pipefitter, an inspector — using 2D drawings. However, reading a drawing can occupy a lot of time and energy, he noted. By improving the way designs are communicated much of that excess time can be eliminated.

To employ augmented reality, a user takes a mobile device such as a tablet and points it at a designated part of the ship that he is working on. When looking through the device, the operator will see a real-time camera view of the space with a digital overlay on top of it.

For example, the technology could help a user place studs on a bulkhead or steel panel in a ship, Ryan said. The worker could point the tablet at the panel and identify where they need to be positioned. “That enables me to eliminate the tape measurer and eliminate that step in the production process, and that is where the time savings comes in,” Ryan said.

In one of the company’s pilot projects, a shipfitter using the technology was able to save two and a half hours in labor per day. “That’s a 35 percent cost reduction on that particular person on that particular job,” Ryan said.

The company is focusing its attention on which trades within the shipbuilding process would benefit the most from using augmented reality. There are “different skilled crafts that are more conducive to AR than others,” Ryan said. “A welder, for example, needs a really specialized kind of equipment. He can’t be holding an iPad and wearing his welding shield and have a torch all at the same time. But a shipfitter or inspector is really well suited to use AR.”

The company first began developing the technology during an internal research-and-development project in 2011. Since then, the augmented reality team at Newport News has completed more than 40 projects. The technology has been employed aboard CVN-78 for a little over a year, though it was applied during earlier phases of the construction process in the shipyard, Ryan said. It will be used “orders of magnitude” more on CVN-79, the keel of which was laid in August, he noted.

There has been renewed interest in cost reduction measures for the Ford-class program amid mounting criticisms of the lead ship, CVN-78.

In October, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a report as part of his “America’s Most Wasted” series detailing the cost growth of the Ford-class carrier program.

“In 2002, the office of the secretary of defense and the Navy decided to use the Nimitz-class carrier as a baseline design for CVN-78, but added more than a dozen new advanced features including an entirely new nuclear reactor plant, a new electrical distribution system, a new and enlarged flight deck, a new electromagnetic catapult system to launch aircraft and a new advanced arresting gear that could be used to recover aircraft on both the Nimitz and Ford-class carriers,” stated the report.

“These transformational technologies were envisioned to generate more aircraft sorties per day, produce more electrical power for supporting ship systems and allow the ships to be operated with several hundred fewer sailors than the Nimitz-class. But the decision to develop concurrently and integrate onto one ship, a host of advanced — and entirely unproven — technologies all at once, has proven to be the failure of this program.”

The report estimated the carrier program to be more than $6 billion over budget. On the lead ship — CVN-78 — costs have grown by $2.4 billion, from $10.5 billion in the fiscal year 2008 budget to $12.9 billion in the fiscal year 2016 budget, which equates to a 23 percent increase since procurement of the ship was authorized in 2008, the report said. It also stated that CVN-79 is five years behind schedule, with cost growth estimated at 25 percent, from $9.2 billion in 2008 to $11.5 billion in 2016.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said at this point — with the requirements of the Ford-class carrier established and the technologies that caused some of the original design challenges immutable — the Navy’s best option is to add efficiencies to the construction process.

“The Navy could … help the shipyard by working with them to alleviate some requirements that might allow the shipyard to build the ship more efficiently by moving things earlier in the construction process,” Clark said.

A September report released by the Congressional Research Service and authored by Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs, elaborated on this point. The report listed several ways Navy officials have said they hope to improve the ship’s build strategy from CVN-78 to CVN-79 including: bringing modules of the ship to a higher level of completion before stacking them together; producing similar ship modules in an assembly line-like fashion; and ordering ship parts and materials more efficiently in batches as opposed to on an individual basis when needed.

Clark said these sorts of efficiencies are attainable; it’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to be put into place. If incorporated, the savings would be substantial, he said. “It’s a pretty significant cost savings they are looking to achieve — between five and 10 percent efficiency” with equivalent percentage savings.

He noted that 3D modeling and simulation technology would be an effective tool for increasing construction efficiencies. Workers could watch an animation of the ship being built to indentify roadblocks or areas where the construction process is stuck waiting on other parts to be completed, Clark said. Electric work is a good example of this, he noted.

“Electrical [works] can’t get done until enough of the framework and platforms of the ship are in so you can actually run the cable,” he said. Workers could use “modeling and simulation to look at the ship being put together and say, ‘Look at this, we’ve got an opportunity here where if I just moved up this framing part … I could free up a roadblock that would allow the electrical people to move on and get their work done more efficiently.’”

In addition to needing the Navy’s help to adjust requirements, the shipbuilder needs more support from the service to fully realize the savings rendered by using augmented reality technology, according to Newport News Shipbuilding executives.

The technology is still in the prototype phase and “it takes us working with the Navy to get to a point where we can really scale because we have to come through beta security questions,” said Jennifer Boykin, vice president of engineering and design. “Unless and until that happens, the opportunity is not as great as it could be just given the technology.”

There are significant challenges such as determining how to best manage and secure data, she said. The company is partnered with the Navy to assess those risks, but they are setting the pace for transitioning augmented reality out of the prototype phase, she noted.

Ryan agreed, stating there are many hurdles where the shipbuilder needs assistance from the Navy regarding certification, policy and procedure before the technology can move into full-scale production. “Scaled rollout is our biggest hurdle and what we have our eye on the most.”

Moving to full-scale production would change everything, Ryan said. Designers and engineers “will be working in the digital world, producing digital packages,” he said. “The shipbuilders will be getting their information faster and in a more intuitive way.”

There are also areas where this technology would be valuable outside of cost, he noted. “It’s not just about reducing costs. It’s about improving quality, improving safety and reducing schedule [interruptions] depending on the needs of the shipbuilder and the needs of the program.”

Until the technology transitions the real potential for savings is difficult to project, but Ryan said he believes using augmented reality is “going to be the biggest thing that we can do to impact cost that has come across in 40 years.”

Topics: Shipbuilding, Aircraft Carriers, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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