Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, is building the Independence-variant littoral combat ship (LCS) and expeditionary fast transport (EPF) for the U.S. Navy.
The distinctive LCS trimaran and EPF catamaran hulls were adapted from commercial high-speed ferry designs by Austal in Australia. The LCS hull provides the volume needed to carry the interchangeable mission packages for the LCS focused missions. The EPF can provide fast intra-theater lift of vehicles, cargo and personnel, and is operated by the Military Sealift Command. Systems integration and the total ship computing environment (TSCE) for both LCS and EPF are provided by General Dynamics Mission Systems.
Austal USA President Craig Perciavalle refers to the shipyard as a ship manufacturing facility. “We took a number of best practices from the shipbuilding industry, both here and abroad, as well as the aerospace and automobile manufacturing industries. These designs not only make construction more efficient, but reduce cost to our customers.”
Construction of both LCS and EPF (formerly known as the joint high speed vessel) takes places in three phases, starting with the initial fabrication in the module manufacturing facility (MMF) at Austal’s Mobile, Alabama, shipyard. The ships are built from aluminum on a production line in a manufacturing facility in nearly complete modules that are put together in a final assembly building.
Construction begins with various thicknesses of aluminum sheets being scored and cut by machinery operated by skilled craftsmen, many of whom were trained in partnership with the state of Alabama at the Maritime Training Center adjacent to Austal’s manufacturing facilities.
The pieces are joined using friction-stir welding. Waste aluminum is accounted for, and recycled, further increasing efficiency of the facility. There are separate recycling bins for LCS and EPF aluminum.
“The modules are fabricated to a high degree of completion to include installation of the vast majority of equipment, wiring and piping in the MMF as the modules are built. Once complete, the modules are transported to the final assembly bay where the modules are erected into a single hull,” says Austal spokesperson Michelle Bowden.
The modules are built upside down to make it easier to weld, reducing cost and increasing efficiency. The modules are nearly 80 percent complete when they move to the final assembly hall.
Lean manufacturing processes are employed. Tools, parts and consumables are picked up at self-service supply cages where they are scanned and tracked. RFI tags keep track of inventory using Cribmaster software. Various metrics for products and efficiency are tracked and posted so the work teams can see how they are performing compared to schedule, budget and other baselines.
“Once all the modules are erected, the ship is launched and the remaining work is conducted in the water at the vessel completion yard (VCY), the newest improvement to the Austal USA facility,” Bowden says.