on_the_cover_buttonmasthead buttonsubmit_feedbacksubmit_article

The term “submarine construction industrial base” brings to mind the massive shipyards of General Dynamics Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding. But critical components of America’s submarines have always come from the second tier of the construction industrial base—the many specialized manufacturers who supply key products to the shipyards.

These “vendors,” as they are called, are as important to the success of any submarine building program as the yards themselves. As submarines have grown more complex and sophisticated, the variety of vendors has increased, and the level of expertise they must bring to the table has steadily risen. Consequently, they contribute more than ever to ensuring quality, providing innovative solutions, and controlling costs.

John D. Holmander, the Electric Boat vice president responsible for the Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarine program, neatly summarized the critical role played by these varied suppliers:

“The vendor base is responsible for about a third of the cost of a Virginia-class submarine, so we depend on our suppliers for innovation, imagination and product and process improvement. The support we get from [vendors], which take that responsibility seriously, enables us to build the world’s best submarines at the lowest possible price.”

UNDERSEA WARFARE does not begin to have enough space to describe the many capable firms that make up the submarine vendor base. Even a bare listing of their contributions and major achievements could take up many pages. So rather than attempt to capture the entire vendor base, the following articles briefly describe the achievements of two specific companies in order to give our readers some idea of how vendors contribute to building successful submarines.

Each of these two representative companies—Seemann Composites Inc. and Target Rock, a unit of the Curtiss Wright Flow Control Company—has its own unique story, but in a broader sense, they stand for the entire community of capable manufacturing organizations that help America’s two major submarine builders turn out the world’s best submarines.

by David Tortorano

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, causing immense damage throughout the region. In the hot, humid days that followed, workers at Seemann Composites, Inc. (SCI) on the Bernard Bayou Industrial Seaway in Gulfport, Miss. swept out the debris and mud brought in by the four feet of salt water that flooded the plant during the storm. Led by company president Bill Seemann and plant manager Randy Bardwell, they worked long hours to get back into operation, while at the same time Seemann and many of his workers had to deal with damaged or lost homes.

It may not be too much of an overstatement to say that managers and workers were battle-tested like the military services they help equip. They did what it took to get up and running again with no delay whatsoever in scheduled deliveries. Ten weeks later, they were back in full production. “Because we acted quickly,” Seemann recalled, “we mitigated our losses and got back into production quickly. We were able to meet our schedule.”

In fact, the company went on to add production capacity. In 2009, it installed a new computer-numerical-control (CNC), high-accuracy, five-axis gantry router that does close-tolerance machining with aerospace-quality accuracy and can machine pieces as large as 100 feet by 20 feet by 10 feet.

image caption follows
The Seemann Composites facility in Gulfport, Miss. At top right is a waterway providing access to the Gulf.
Photo courtesy of Seemann Composites, Inc.

From its start as a small boat builder 40 years ago, SCI has grown into a highly specialized developer and builder of cutting-edge components for the defense industry. It now employs just over 100 workers. Its 15-acre facility includes 400 feet on a waterway with access to the Gulf, enabling it to ship large products anywhere in the world. Two buildings totaling over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space contain several million dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment.

Military products account for virtually all of SCI’s work, including components for systems that operate on land, in the air, and on and beneath the sea. Customers include a variety of organizations in the Navy and Army, as well as NASA. Its commercial customers include the cutting-edge specialty firm Materials Sciences and defense industry giants like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Textron.

A large part of SCI’s work is devoted to supplying half a dozen components for the Virginia-class attack submarine. Like many other submarine subcontractors, the company serves not just as a reliable supplier but also as a center of manufacturing innovation. “Excellence through Innovation” is the motto that appears in its logo, and finding better ways to do things has accounted for much of its growth. Its particular expertise is in developing composite components to replace the metal ones on submarines. This on-going innovation has helped reduce cost and improve performance for the Virginia class and has the potential to do the same for future programs.

image caption follows
Seemann’s CNC high-accuracy, five-axis gantry router.
Photo courtesy of Seemann Composites, Inc.

When Bill Seemann started building fiberglass boats back in the mid-1960s, he thought there had to be a better way to build laminated structures than the traditional hand-laid, open-molding method, which was labor-intensive and posed environmental and health risks, so he began experimenting. Two of his innovations in particular would shape the company’s course. Both contributed to a molding process that permits the fabrication of large, high-quality pieces from composite materials at reduced cost.

The first innovation, in the 1970s, was C-Flex, a method for building with fiberglass without using a mold. Twenty years later, he developed and patented the vacuum-infusion method he called SCRIMP, which stands for Seemann Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process. SCRIMP greatly reduced volatile organic compound emissions. It produced consistent results with low-cost tooling, and it permitted the fabrication of structures with no practical size limit. SCRIMP is now used worldwide to fabricate everything from ground vehicles to aircraft structures.

The first customer for the SCRIMP method was the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, for which SCI built a test module for the Advanced Technology Composite Deckhouse program. This work paved the way for supplying high-quality composite parts at a price that was affordable for large-scale structures on Navy ships—including submarines. How far composites have come is indicated in part by the products being made with them. It’s hard to find a more grueling environment than the high-pressure world where submariners operate.

SCI shipped the first item for the Virginia program in 2000, and by 2010, it had supplied components for eight submarines of that class. The company first got involved in the program a decade ago, when it started work on components of the precursor to the Light Weight Wide Aperture Array (LWWAA), the advanced acoustic detection system located on the submarine’s hull.

LWWAA components remain the company’s largest submarine product line. Using SCRIMP and a proprietary super-toughened vinyl-ester resin called STVE5, SCI builds the fiberglass Array Support Plate as well as the fairings for the six LWWAA components on each submarine. It delivers the LWWAA components machined and with coatings and titanium hardware in place, ready for the electronics integration. It also builds other fiberglass components for the Virginia class, including the snorkel fairing, sail access covers, strainer plates, flood grates and dihedral cover.

The company’s efforts have contributed significantly to the cost savings that are a hallmark of the Virginia class. In constant dollars, the cost for LWWAA components fell more than 23 percent between ship set 1 and ship set 11. Increased efficiencies resulting from the building of two subs per year rather than one subsequently reduced the cost by another 14 percent for ship sets 12 through 18. In broader terms, the trend toward replacing metal parts with composites has also yielded weight savings, and it has increased resistance to corrosion, which helps to reduce life-cycle cost.

SCI is now developing a composite sail cusp, tail-cone and bow dome. After a two-year competition, it was chosen to participate in the Composite Advanced Sail program for the Virginia class. Working with the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), SCI fabricated full-scale test sections of the Advanced Sail, which validated the structural analysis techniques developed by NSWC.

The company is also working with NSWC to develop a lower-cost manufacturing process for the composite bow dome on Virginia-class subs. The current manufacturing process, which uses aerospace pre-preg (pre-impregnated) laminates cured in an autoclave, limits the size of a composite bow dome to the diameter of the autoclave. SCI developed an out-of-autoclave method using SCRIMP and low-cost tooling to overcome the size limitation.

This is of particular interest to submarine builders with the need to replace the Ohio (SSBN-726) class looming on the horizon, requiring a bow dome that will exceed the size of current autoclaves. SCI has built multiple test pieces to qualify the manufacturing concept and is in the process of building a full-scale prototype bow dome projected to yield cost reductions on future procurements, not to mention saving the cost of building an autoclave large enough to cure the new dome.

“Seemann Composites hopes to be continually supplying composite components for the Virginia-class program for as long as they are being built,” said Seemann, adding that the company is actively developing new materials that will advance the state of the art in submarine composite structures.

Mr. Tortorano heads Tortorano Commissioned Publications, a research firm that provides documentation for organizations’ internal use and for print and electronic publication.

The Critical Second Tier: Submarine Vendors Next Page>>