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Building (Still) Better Ships

Improvements since the 1930’s of Skinner’s Paintings

The term “Better ships” in the exhibit’s title begs the question: “Better than what?” Better might be the result of cheaper to own & operate through better (more focused on economics) designs. The original motto of Newport News Shipbuilding was:

We shall built Good Ships here.
At a profit if we can.

At a loss if we must.

But Always Good Ships.

Shipbuilding has changed through the years since the museum’s current exhibit, “Building Better Ships”. This has happened as a result of three evolutionary technical developments:: new materials, welded construction and benefits of the computer age. In addition, global economic forces have had an extraordinary impact on shipbuilding.

New materials, particularly shipbuilding steels: Alloys of iron and carbon were known as early as Roman times. Damascus steel was greatly respected for its strength and ability to hold an edge for swords. These were always produced in small batches, and without a clear understanding of the alloying process. The recipe for tempering sword steel “in the belly of a Nubian slave” is not practical for mass production. Mass production of steel was made possible as the Bessemer process was developed and refined. The new processes allowed much larger batches, typically 15 tons, to be produced in much less time, bringing the price down significantly. Modern steels are much stronger and are held to higher quality control standards. Many specialty alloys have been developed. The problem of brittle fracture has been recognized and solved, and “weldability” has been provided in modern steels.

Welded construction vs. riveted construction: Welding has totally replaced riveted construction since the 1940’s and 1950’s. Riveting requires 2 men on the ground and two on the ship’s hull to accomplish what a single welder can do in less time. Remember Rosie the Riveter? She was one of that team. Welding is largely automated now, with computer driven machines. (There is an interesting tale about all-welded Liberty ships breaking in half spontaneously, which may be the subject of another blog.)

Impact of computer and automation on ship construction: Computers are used in every aspect of ship design and construction now. The drafting room with rows and rows of draftsmen are relics of the past, being replaced by several “CAD” (Computer Aided Design) stations, which do a better job; for instance at laying out components to be cut out of a sheet of steel as seen in the Building Better Ships Gallery (Much as a seamstress lays out patterns on cloth to minimize waste.) Three-dimensional computer modeling allows lay-out and routing of the distributed systems (mainly electrical, plumbing and HVAC ducting), with the computer resolving conflicts in the most economical way and reducing the responsibility for “field routing” by the individual tradesman.

Computers are used to plan the construction process, schedule and coordinate operations and order materials, in short to manage the entire construction process. CAM “Computer Aided Manufacturing” has been melded with CAD to improve the profitability of shipbuilding.

Global economic forces Shipbuilding is a labor-intensive process and as a consequence several developing nations have used it to advance their national economies. Japan dominated shipbuilding in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Korea has more than matched Japanese output since then and China is coming on strong.. These countries had little or no legacy shipbuilding infrastructure and with national government investment were able to plan and build shipyards from scratch, taking advantage of the technological advances. In the US, the “second tier” shipyards, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico region are ascending rapidly, catching up with the older “big 7” yards with facilities dating back to before WW II.

Readers, especially from Newport News, may have their own view of these factors and are encouraged to reply to this blog.

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