Building the Ford Class
Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are one of the most complex things ever made by man. The warfighting components of launching and retrieving jet aircraft make it complicated enough, but beneath the surface is a bustling city with two power plants, food services, medical facilities, waste management systems, and even desalination plants that convert sea water to fresh water.
The shipbuilders at Newport News Shipbuilding who build these floating warfighters are now building the newest class of aircraft carriers, the Gerald R. Ford class. With new software-controlled electromagnetic catapults and weapons elevators, a redesigned flight deck and island, and more than twice the electrical capacity of the preceding class, these aircraft carriers are truly designed for the 21st century and beyond.
The Affordability Challenge
As the shipbuilders begin construction on the second ship in the class – John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) – the challenge is to reduce the cost of each consecutive ship in the class while maintaining the class’ increased capability. Shipbuilders have captured tens of thousands of lessons-learned from the multi-year process of building Gerald R. Ford, many that are already being implemented as cost-saving initiatives in building Kennedy.
The Ford-class program director explains why these cost-saving initiatives are so important. “The CVN79 contract requires a significant cost reduction from CVN 78. Early on, we realized we can’t get there by working 'harder' than the folks on CVN 78, and we’re certainly not any 'smarter.' So, if you can’t work harder or smarter, then we realized we had to work 'different.' On CVN 79, we’re looking at every key process across the company. From the way we build structural units to the way we install components on the ship. We’re not simply looking for ways to improve. We’re looking for ways to significantly change the way the ship is built. We call these ideas 'Game-Changers.' And, we’re opening the door to every employee in the shipyard to provide ideas on reducing the cost of our core operations.”
To support further cost reductions on the Ford class, the Navy recently announced a “design for affordability” (DFA) initiative to fund the identification of additional process and design changes to lower costs. As the Navy’s program executive officer for aircraft carriers recently said, “There are no $100 million, billion dollar ideas out there,” he said. “If there were, we would have already taken those [steps]. It is finding a million here and a million there, and eventually that is how you get a billion dollars out of the ship.” The DFA effort will play an important role in further reducing the cost of the Ford class.
The Great Indoors, Building Bigger and Digital Shipbuilding
Newport News Shipbuilding is implementing a host of new initiatives to help reach the program’s cost-cutting goals. One major effort is to create more indoor space for construction. By moving more work indoors, weather becomes less of a threat to production schedules, and shipbuilders have better access to tools, equipment and crane support. Shipbuilders on Kennedy are also building the ship in larger, more complete superlifts before lifting them into the dry dock to be assembled. The shipyard is also increasing its use of digital data in the shipbuilding process. Efforts to get rid of paper drawings, use plasma etching to intelligently mark steel, visualize spaces using augmented reality, and other initiatives are projecting major efficiency gains in the construction process.