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The future of shipbuilding

New initiative aims to cultivate workers’ digital skills

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Print this page Veronica Garabelli
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Workers at Newport News Shipbuilding, such as Justin Novak are starting to use tablets.
Courtesy Newport News Shipbuilding

Many shipbuilders at Newport News Shipbuilding have a new tool in their toolboxes.

About 1,000 workers at the shipyard are using digital tablets to work more efficiently.  Using tablets allows tradesmen to carry around less paper and view step-by-step visual instructions on how to complete the task at hand.

“It reduces what you have to carry,” explains Josh Crum, a 30-year-old pipefitter. “You just flip back and forth between the two pages you need,” as opposed to carrying around 30 pages of drawings that can be up to 2 feet tall. 

The use of tablets is one example of how the shipbuilding and ship repair industry is going digital. The goal is to incorporate digital technology for the entire life cycle of a ship, from the time it is designed and built to when it is decommissioned. Newport News Shipbuilding aims to mostly use digital drawings, for the construction of the next aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, which is expected to be complete in the next decade. 

Bill Crow, head of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, which represents 250 companies in the trade, says the digital transformation is just beginning for the industry. “It’s not going to happen overnight with regards to it at all levels but as it continues to evolve … it will enhance everyone’s ability to build or to repair ships in a more efficient, effective manner.”

New technology is fueling the industry’s digital transformation. However, shipbuilders and repairers will need to adapt their knowledge. Several Virginia institutions are working to arm these workers with the necessary digital skills. 

Efforts underway 
Old Dominion University in Norfolk is receiving almost $1.3 million  to prepare workers for the new digital manufacturing environment. The funding comes from the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity in Each Region (GO Virginia), a program promoting job growth throughout the state.

Jennifer Michaeli, an assistant professor of engineering technology at ODU, is leading the university’s digital shipbuilding workforce program, which aims to train approximately 8,500 workers for careers in the industry.  Half of the approximately $1.3 million in funding was distributed earlier this year. The rest will be disbursed in 2019.

ODU is working with educational and industry members to develop the specific career pathways for digital shipbuilding. Michaeli points out that the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. There already are several industry-related programs throughout the state.

They include a maritime logistics program and digital shipbuilding course at ODU and welding and mechatronics programs at Thomas Nelson and Tidewater community colleges. The new ODU initiative aims to “identify great things that are already happening, get the connections in place so that people can pass through this roadmap … and come out at the other end with all of the right credentials and with industry demanding them.”

Michaeli says ODU and its partners already have identified career areas to focus on, including skilled trades, design, engineering and information technology. “We have to get much more specific about job titles,” she says.

Loss of jobs?
Technology, however, can be a double-edged sword, taking away more jobs than it creates. Michaeli, however, doesn’t believe that digitization will have that impact on shipbuilding.

“It’s really about introducing new skill sets to in some ways the same types of positions,” such as welders, she says. “Digital shipbuilding is going to redefine the shipbuilding industry in terms of ‘What skill sets do you need for shipbuilding and ship repair in the future?’”

Brent Woodhouse, manager of digital shipbuilding workforce development at Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., Newport News Shipbuilding’s parent company, agrees with Michaeli and paints this real life example.  When an older ship used to come into the shipyard for upgrades, the process required workers to physically examine the ship to confirm what modifications needed to be made. Now the surveying is done with a laser scanner, which provides a 3-D model of the entire ship.

“Instead of 100 people going out there doing nonsensical work where they’re just marking up [2-D] drawings, we maybe send 20 of them and then we can have 80 of those guys actually doing engineering and design work on the 3-D model,” Woodhouse says. “It’s not like the jobs go away. They kind of transform into more efficient, newer jobs.”

Preparing the workforce 
In addition to reshaping jobs, technology also can help train the next generation. ODU expects to open two new labs this year at its Virginia Modeling, Analysis & Simulation Center, which will enable workers in the industry and students to train on the latest technology and equipment. Siemens is providing software for the digital shipbuilding and marine electrical power systems labs, which can be used to design, build and maintain ships during their life cycle.

The labs also have received in-kind contributions from Amazon and Newport News Shipbuilding, as well as $960,000 in funds from the U.S. Navy. 

The labs also are going to be used for outreach to inspire young people to explore careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, including the shipbuilding and ship repair industries. “They can go through and develop digital work instructions, 3-D design a ship part and … work through that process to inspire them that there are so many cool jobs in the shipbuilding and ship repair industry that maybe they never even considered,” Michaeli explains.

If ODU and other industry stakeholders are successful, future Virginians should have many innovative shipbuilding and ship repair careers to choose from. Crum, the pipefitter at Newport News Shipbuilding, already is embracing the innovative ways to do his job.

“It’s a very wise investment of the company to look into this,” he says of Newport News Shipbuilding’s implementation of the tablets. “The way it’s working it seems to me like it’s going to turn out great. It’s the new age.”


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