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by Jim Roberts

When Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding turned over USS New Mexico (SSN-779) to the U.S. Navy in December 2009, it became the third submarine of the Virginia class to be delivered by the company’s Newport News shipyard in three years, and the sixth overall for the Virginia Class Program. Current plans call for building a total of 30 Virginia-class submarines.

Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding is teamed with General Dynamics Electric Boat, which is the prime contractor for the Virginia class, to build the first 18 boats. These state-of-the-art warships require millions of parts, provided by more than 4,000 suppliers in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding builds the stern of each boat, habitability and machinery spaces, the torpedo room, the sail, and the bow. General Dynamics Electric Boat builds the engine room and the control room. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding and Electric Boat each perform work on the reactor plant as well as alternating lead on the final assembly, test, outfit and delivery.

Northrop Grumman’s focus at present is to continue improving performance on the remaining ships it is building under the “Block II” contract, including California (SSN-781) and Minnesota (SSN-783), with an eye toward the faster submarine delivery schedule outlined in the new Block III contract. This latest contract adds eight ships to the company’s backlog and ramps up overall production to two deliveries per year beginning in 2017.

Becky Stewart, the company’s vice president of submarine programs, attributes the ever-improving performance to the challenge the Chief of Navy Operations made several years ago to shipbuilders and Navy program managers to identify reductions in cost and schedule that would reduce the cost per submarine to $2 billion. This reduction would enable the Navy to increase its orders from one submarine per year to two.

From the deckplate to program management, ideas for cost reduction were generated to simplify the design for producibility, to adjust schedules and accelerate production, to reduce material acquisition cost, to find labor efficiencies and to incorporate lessons learned from ship to ship and between the shipbuilders. New cost-reduction and schedule-acceleration approaches made it possible to deliver New Mexico in 70 months—four months before the contract delivery date—and with one million fewer man-hours than Northrop Grumman’s previously delivered ship, USS North Carolina (SSN-777).

“It has been a full-on industrial effort to get to a cost of $2 billion per sub and to reduce the build schedule toward 60 months,” said Stewart. “Hats off to all of our industrial partners, our suppliers and the Navy as we begin to approach that goal.”

Tom Ward, the manager who leads Northrop Grumman’s program office for the Virginia class, and Bob Meyer, the company’s construction director for the program, are very clear about their goal. Doubling production cannot mean doubling the workforce, because that would merely drive up the cost again. Although there will be some new hiring, the main thrust must be to employ the existing workforce more productively.

One example is changing the number of production employees in the first, second and third shifts in order to distribute the workforce more evenly. In 2009, the program reduced the first shift from 79 percent of total manning to 66 percent, while increasing manning in the second shift. The eventual goal is to have 55 percent of the workforce on first shift, 35 percent on second and 10 percent on third.

“Two per year is not necessarily the pure instigator for greater utilization of second and third shift,” Meyer said. “I think we recognized that was something we had to do—a self-proclaimed mandate. We’ve got to use the clock better. We’re committing to some significant reductions in total span times in building submarines, and you can’t do that purely just by working harder. We’ve got to better coordinate the work itself.”

Ward added: “We’re not doing it just because it’s good to beat a contract delivery date. We’re doing it because that’s how we continue improving the performance of the program and maintaining the momentum that we’ve generated to date. That leads to success on Block III and sets us up for Block IV and beyond.”

“Two per year” will also require investments in the facilities through capital upgrades, including a new heavy plate press and additional hardware for the machine shops and dimensional control department. There are also plans to build a work cell to support the Virginia Class Program in the former receiving warehouse, which was vacated when the consolidated warehouse opened.

Perhaps the biggest change will be the construction of a 70,000-square-foot supplemental module outfitting facility (SMOF). The SMOF, which will be located at the northeast corner of the existing module outfitting facility in the Newport News shipyard, is expected to open in October 2012.

Ward said the capital investments come with a caveat: improved performance. “We have a commitment [to Northrop Grumman’s corporate leadership] to satisfy a business case for the capital plan that requires us to perform on budget for Block III,” he said. “So in return for corporate allowing us to build the facilities, we have promised that we would be able to perform on budget.”

It’s a tall order. The Virginia class is often referred to as the Navy’s best shipbuilding program, but there are constant demands to improve, and the program needs to double production without losing any of its current efficiencies.

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Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News welder Melvin Holloman works on the sail unit for the submarineMississippi(SSN-782) in the ring module shop. Photo by Ricky Thompson, NGSB.

“No matter how well we did the last time, there is an expectation that we will do it even better the next time,” Ward said. “This includes the transition to two per year and the addition of new people to [Virginia-class construction] that will support the increased production rate. Our expectation is the new people will be smoothly integrated and will work as efficiently as the people that are already here.”

Meyer added: “There is incredible pressure to not backslide, to not rest on your laurels, to strive to improve on everything we do. It is a real challenge. It’s one that requires renewed effort by everyone internal to the program. It requires a renewed energy by everybody involved to make sure we’re continually advancing. There is no opportunity to sit back and say, ‘Well, we’ve got this licked.’”

Of course, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding is not alone in its efforts. Electric Boat alternates delivery of submarines with Northrop Grumman and serves as a “competitive partner” in the “two per year” planning.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a strong shipbuilder as a teammate who is constantly challenging us, and we challenge them,” Meyer said. “They come up with ways to further improve the program, and we do the same. The relationship between us constantly drives the whole team for success.”

What can shipbuilders do to support “two per year” planning and overall performance on the Virginia Class Program? In addition to staying aware of the program’s strategies and commitments and sharing ideas for improvement, “there needs to be a continued focus on quality performance—first-time quality in everything we do,” Bob Meyer said. “We’ve got to continue to make sure we’ve got a safe environment … and continue to find ways to further reduce costs and schedule span times.”

Jim Roberts is manager of employee communications at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News. Northrop Grumman employees Margaret Mitchell-Jones and Michael Duhe also contributed to this article.

Part of Northrop Grumman’s preparation for delivering two Virginia-class submarines per year is increasing the percentage of employees working on second and third shifts.

“I think people see some real opportunities there,” said Bob Meyer, Northrop Grumman’s construction director for the Virginia class. “Once people experience it, they kind of find a niche there. We’re working hard to make sure they’ve got the support networks and infrastructure in place so they can be truly effective there and really heighten the contribution that we get from those folks.”

What do the shipbuilders who work the night shift think? This is what three yard employees working nights to build the Virginia class had to say:

James McClain, Surface Preparation and Treatment Department:
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Tonaya Gary, Surface Preparation and Treatment Department:
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Tom Richardson, Welders Department:
“I like second shift because it gives me more time with my family. I feel I can be recognized for who I am and for my individual achievements. I definitely enjoy second shift. … My days are open, not only for my family, but to take care of personal business. Everything is open on first shift. … I’m thankful that I had an opportunity to come to second shift. It’s really made a difference for the positive, and I enjoy it.” Third shift, you can get your job done. … I feel like I’m learning more and the work is more efficient. On third shift, you can go ahead and knock your work out and be working on your back-up jobs. … As for my personal life, I don’t have to worry about a baby sitter. I can go on school trips with my son. If he gets sick, I can be the one to take care of him. It’s easier on me. “I like it a lot …I like that there’s less people there, less people to work around, you don’t have as many people going through your job area when you’re trying to work. … Traffic’s definitely better, especially getting out. You don’t have so many people leaving the parking lots. Parking, you can get right in. I don’t have to park four blocks away. That’s definitely a big benefit.”

Photos courtesy of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.