Austal USA: rethinking shipbuilding

The 154-footer line at Bollinger Lockport is an example of how an existing yard gears up for serial production. In Mobile, Ala., Austal USA is demonstrating that designing an assembly line from scratch can look more like an automobile plant than a shipyard.

Working with aluminum on the assembly line for the Joint High Speed Vessel. At right is one of the vending machines stocked with common workplace consumables. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Inside the $85 million modular manufacturing building devoted to Austal's 338-foot Joint High Speed Vessel (Professional Mariner #150), 1,000 feet long and 350 feet wide, a gleamingly efficient assembly line runs the length of one side while the shops that feed it are arrayed along the other side. Materials are labeled and numbered and delivered to order: spools of cable wait on a huge rack, every cut monitored by computer to control wastage.

Cutting out uses a lot of manual labor, so Austal works with extrusions prepared by other manufacturers and assembled in panels (its extrusion cutters, of course, are computer controlled). The entire building is piped for compressed air, but it's eerily quiet. Austal builds in aluminum, and aluminum isn't magnetic, so pieces are picked up and moved around via vacuum technology.

Need a pair of gloves, a wire brush, a MIG welding tip? Just scan your employee badge at a vending machine and take what you need. Looking for something bigger? A material carrier will drive through a 70,000-square-foot warehouse and bring it to you.

By the time an expansion of the facility is complete, Austal will have invested more than $400 million, including waterfront acquisition and other improvements. State and local governments have offered signifcant incentives.

The first JHSV, photographed in August before its launch the following month. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Austal's use of a greenfield site is an advantage, says Anton Schmieman, a technical sales manager who hails from Austal's Australian parent. But the firm left nothing to chance, sending experts to visit auto plants, aerospace companies and shipbuilders worldwide to bolster the company's own experience in aluminum shipbuilding.

Some of the ideas are brilliant. Ship's lighting, for example, is installed early, along with pipes, electrical cable, duct work, generators, pumps and other mechanical systems — the lights can be used during assembly. The yard works on the tops and bottoms of modules side by side ("clamshell style" is Schmieman's phrase), installing components such as engines before closing them up.

As a result, the JHSVs are being built entirely by modular construction, six months apart. Austal's other current program, its Littoral Combat Ship, will soon be modular too.

By Professional Mariner Staff