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Full steam ahead for Nassco shipyard in San Diego

The last major shipyard on the West Coast has outlasted the competition by making sure that every new vessel has been built better, faster, cheaper and with fewer injuries than the one that came before, says its president, Frederick J. Harris.

July 03, 2011|By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times

As recently as 2005, the 86-acre Nassco facility, which had been acquired by General Dynamics in 1998, was having major quality and safety problems. About 21 workers out of every 100 were getting injured on the job. Moreover, for every 100 hours of work done at the yard, there were 20 to 30 hours of reworking to fix mistakes.

Harris took over at the beginning of 2006. He came from General Dynamics' Electric Boat division, where he had worked for 22 years, eventually serving as senior vice president in charge of design, construction and fleet support programs for the Navy's Seawolf- and Virginia-class submarines and other vessels.

Harris brought with him a new way of manufacturing. He implemented his own version of "The Breakfast Club," which was no more fun for participants than for the fictional Brat Pack characters of the movie of the same name. ("The employees are the breakfast," quipped one Nassco executive.)

The weekly meetings became the shipyard's principal brainstorming session for improving safety and performance. Now there are about 3 injuries per 100 workers, and less than 1 hour of corrective efforts needed after every 100 hours of work, Harris said.

Harris' desk is covered with thick PowerPoint presentations from those sessions; he calls up examples on specific pages, as if he has them all memorized. Among the many mantras one hears in these discussions is "moving things to the left," which on a ship-delivery timeline means delivery ahead of schedule.

Among Harris' many sayings: "Don't hope you can have a safer shipyard. You can hope all you want. Unless you have structural programs in place, you can't ensure that people who come to work in good shape are going home in good shape."

Nassco, whose workforce numbers about 3,600, is a company where some workers can spend entire careers. Wages average around $55,000 a year, and there are 401(k) plans and other benefits.

The shipyard never sleeps. Three eight-hour shifts keep it running 24 hours a day.

Job classifications include several types of engineers, including industrial, mechanical, electrical and design. There are also welders, pipefitters, plumbers, electricians, outfitters and painters.

Out in the yard, there is a curious mixture of ancient practice and new strategies.

The ship's keel, for instance, will still rest on seemingly precarious piles of scuffed and weathered oak blocks, which in turn rest on sand, said Graham Dodd, Nassco's director of steel production, who has been in the business of building ships for 38 years.

"This part of it is more than 2,000-year-old technology. This is exactly the way the Greek and the Romans and the Egyptians built their ships," Dodd said.

But other traditions have been discarded, perhaps forever, such as the old style of building ships in one piece, surrounded by scaffolding. Now, Nassco's yard resembles a giant Lego construction project, with most of the work occurring on the ground and not on the ship.

To build a T-AKE ship, a few hundred parts are put together into sub-assemblies weighing up to 35 tons. Sub-assemblies are then combined into blocks of up to 150 tons. These are eventually pieced together into grand blocks that can weigh more than 600 tons, Dodd said.

On Navy T-AKE ship No. 14, the Cesar Chavez, work was proceeding on the biggest of the grand blocks, No. 519, which was the ship's pump room. It weighs 612 tons. These blocks are hoisted and moved by one or more of the shipyard's 300-ton Sumitomo gantry cranes, which travel around the yard on 2.6 miles of rail tracks. Grand block No. 519 was a three-crane lift.

Dodd said the differences in time savings in building ships in this fashion have been huge.

"If it took an hour to do on the ground, it took three times as long adding it onto the ship later and seven times as long adding it out on the water, so we have moved as much work as possible onto the ground," Dodd said.

So far it seems to be paying off. In May, about five weeks after the Nassco shipyard announced that delays in reaching a federal budget agreement and a slowdown in the shipbuilding industry meant that it was going to have to lay off 350 employees on top of 290 in 2010, the yard landed the $744-million contract to build the first of the Navy's new Mobile Landing Platform ships.

"This new contract will significantly reduce the number of employees affected by the previously announced potential layoffs at General Dynamics Nassco," the company said in a news release when the contract was announced. "As ship construction gets underway in earnest, the total number of employees at the shipyard may increase by the end of 2011."

For Harris, the contract means another round of Breakfast Club meetings.

"And we absolutely will do it better and faster," he said.

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