The World’s Largest and Most Efficient Aluminum Shipbuilder

Austal is the largest aluminium shipbuilder in the world. When it established a new shipyard in Alabama, USA in 1999, specifically targeting future US Defence requirements, the company knew that it would need to adopt “world’s best practice” shipbuilding methodologies in order to successfully cope with multiple vessel contracts and to meet the very stringent demands of the US Navy.

While the training of a highly skilled aluminium workforce continued, senior managers started to consider the future need for a state-of-the-art Module Manufacturing Facility (MMF), to modify the company’s design procedures for greater production efficiency and to adopt best practice manufacturing procedures.

In 2005, facing the challenge of producing multiple orders of large, complex vessels for the U.S. Navy’s transformational fleet programs, Austal USA embarked on a development plan to expand its production capability and improve its productivity and efficiency. Starting with visits to leading shipyards in the U.S., Korea, Australia and Germany, and working with industry experts in shipbuilding and manufacturing, the company worked to combine Austal’s advanced three dimensional design and modular construction processes with a state-of-the-art Module Manufacturing Facility. The result of four years of detailed logistics and ergonomic planning, the MMF is designed to drive production efficiency in aluminium shipbuilding beyond anything previously achieved.

Having already purchased 102 acres of suitable land in 2006, construction work began on the new facility’s first phase in July 2008 and was completed by September 2009. The completed MMF houses an 8.5 -acre, fully covered, manufacturing facility with two fully commissioned production lines. The facility is supplemented by a 1.7-acre drive-through warehouse for the storage of equipment and materials and parking for over 2,000 employee vehicles in a secure, paved and fenced area.

The Phase 1 production lines occupy half of the manufacturing facility and deliver a revolution in aluminium shipbuilding. Where most aluminium shipbuilders utilize a craft-based, keel up vessel construction process, Austal USA uses a three dimensional design process that divides construction into modules which are constructed entirely undercover in the MMF. Uncut metal enters at one end of the production line and modules, approximately 85% complete, emerge at the other end ready to be assembled in one of two large vessel assembly bays. Each module progresses down the production line through work stations where cross-functional trade teams install small components, pipes, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) ductwork, machinery, electric cables, equipment and outfitting.

The key to the new shipbuilding process is keeping the work flowing smoothly with the right materials, equipment and personnel available at the right time and in the right place, with the work coming to the craftsman rather than the craftsman moving to the work location.

Aluminium plate and extrusions enter at the eastern end of the building where two computer-numerically controlled (CNC), three-axis routers cut the metal, in thicknesses up to 50mm, into the required elements; at the same time marking each piece with a unique number that identifies the hull, module and sub-assembly to which it belongs. The cut metal then moves through the module assembly area, the first phase of the production line, a series of work stations where stiffeners and frames are fitted and welded and panels attached. The modules progressively take shape on inter-connectable, self propelled module trolleys, wheeled steel frames with a 1.2 metre frame spacing, the same as the frame spacing of the vessels under construction, that move the increasingly complex modules from one station to the next. Lifting of all materials and equipment is undertaken by 37 overhead gantry cranes of various lifting capacities that can reach all the storage and manufacturing floor of the facility. Welding is performed using digital pulse welding machines with welding gas supplied via a closed loop, bulk argon delivery system serving the entire building.

At this point in the production process, modules that require more work than can be accomplished in one week, such as a complex wheelhouse module, can be broken out of the line to a separate part of the facility where work can progress without holding up production of following modules.

Normal modules move to the second, outfitting, phase of the production line where work stations manufacture and install pipes and small components and where air-conditioning, electrical and engineering materials, equipment, machinery and internal outfit are progressively installed.

Major equipment serving the outfitting area includes two CNC saw mills for cutting stiffeners and T-bars, two CNC pipe bending machines, two semi-automated cable coiling machines, two 20-foot shears, two 20-foot 400 ton press brakes and two CNC routers dedicated to the internal outfit shop.

Once the modules emerge from the MMF they are transported to the vessel assembly bays using multi-axle transporters capable of lifting modules weighing over 400 tons and measuring up to 120 ft (length) x 50 ft (width) x 30 ft (height) (42m x 30m x 9m).

The benefits of this giant production line process include:

* repeatability of design for configuration control,

* repeatability of work, resulting in productivity improvements,

* performing the work in the most convenient and ergonomic place for the worker,

* the ability to automate wherever possible,

* completion of as much equipment and material installation as possible during modular construction so that only connecting, commissioning and testing are required in the assembled vessel,

* a safer, more efficient working environment for staff.

Austal USA’s investment in the MMF totals approximately US$85 million and is already paying big dividends with experience in both the LCS and JHSV construction programs confirming measurable improvements in production efficiency.

As a result of the use of CNC routers, stiffener cutters and automated assembly line flow, incorporating lean manufacturing production processes, Austal USA has improved its fabrication productivity by 30% in just one year. Similarly the CNC pipe bender in the pipe shop and the semi-automated cable coiling machine in the electrical shop are responsible for a 40% increase in outfitting productivity.

But this is only the beginning. By 2013, when the MMF will be operating at maximum efficiency, Austal USA will have the capability to deliver two 103-meter JHSVs and two 127-meter LCSs each year. For a shipyard that started operations with the construction in 2000 of two 45-meter offshore support vessels, this is a remarkable transformation. Starting in 1999 with a 10-acre site, a single construction bay and under 100 workers, Austal USA is now the largest manufacturing company in Mobile, Alabama, and the largest aluminium shipbuilder in the world.

With the first Austal-built LCS, USS Independence (LCS 2), now in service, the second, Coronado, heading for completion in late 2012 and construction of the first 103-meter Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) for the U.S. Army underway, Austal USA is awaiting news in August 2010 of whether its bid to construct the next 10 LCSs will be successful. Should Austal USA prevail, its workforce could grow from 1,600 to as large as 3,500.

Austal CEO, Bob Browning commented “When I joined Austal as a Director in 2003 the company’s Western Australian shipyard was the acknowledged world leader in the production of aluminium ships. Today I am proud to lead an organization that has two shipyards, one in Australia and, now, one in the USA, that share equal first place. ”

“The huge improvements in efficiency and productivity that we have seen at Austal USA in the first 12 months since it commissioned the MMF are a clear indication that the company is on track towards its goal of achieving world’s best practice in aluminium shipbuilding and is ideally placed to confidently secure multiple orders of large complex vessels”.


Source: austal, August 20, 2010