NEWPORT NEWS — For more than a century, the Newport News shipyard has stood as a beacon of heavy manufacturing.
Forged in its identity are thousands of blue-collar workers who transform raw pieces of steel into complex military vessels.
But away from the tired hands and sweat-stained overalls of the waterfront, a group of engineers and designers sit behind liquid-crystal displays in air-conditioned offices.
As technology has evolved, the process of designing and building a warship has moved away from the waterfront and hand-drawn blueprints into high-powered computers and software engineers.
To design state-of-the-art, multibillion-dollar nuclear warships, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding today relies heavily on technology to drive its research, development and design.
As technology has evolved, the shipyard hatched a small team called its Advanced Capabilities Group to explore new ways to make the shipbuilding process more efficient.
The group launched with five workers in 2001. Today, it has 27 full-time software engineers and designers along with a roughly 30-member rotating staff of experts from other areas of the yard.
Through the use of specialized design software and modeling and simulation tools, shipyard designers can make practical design decisions on aircraft carriers and submarines long before construction begins.
With the new high-tech tools, the shipyard was able to prove that the design for its next generation of aircraft carriers, the Gerald R. Ford class, could meet new Navy requirements before the first pieces of steel were welded together.
"This is really the first time we've had the ability to demonstrate (standards) can be met and validated that far in advance," said Peter C. Diakun, vice president of the group. "That is really significant."
By running the new ship's design through thousands of simulations over the last eight years, the yard has been able to determine how to improve performance by making tweaks in advance.
For example, one of the Navy's goals for the new carrier is to increase the sortie rate of aircraft by 25 percent over the previous Nimitz class ships. Before the final design was completed, the yard wanted to be sure that their new design could support that kind of improvement.
Engineers and designers tested a handful of new flight deck designs with a 3-D computer-powered simulation of at-sea operations, taking into account weapons loading, taxiing, and launching and catching aircraft on the flattop.
The model allowed designers to prove that the new design met the new requirements.
"Just to be able to have the ability to show the operational effectiveness of the design in advance of a ship being built allows warfighters to show the capabilities they need to be funded," Diakun said.
Also, because the Ford class is expected to be patrolling the world's oceans for 100 years, the Navy and the shipyard will be able to use those models to aid in the design of new aircraft that are certain to be developed over that time.
"Over 100 years, there are going to be new airplanes," Diakun said. "These new tools allow us to look into the future, to make sure we can support them."
The new tools don't help just the pocket-protector contingent in cushy office buildings; they've transformed the way waterfront workers approach assembling the ships.
Before waterfront workers lay a hand on assembling a new ship space, they can take a 3-D tour of the space to learn the most efficient way to put it together.
The feature provides a worker with a step-by-step rendering of how the spaces appear after each piece of equipment is added, guiding the sequence of work for welders, fitters and others.
So, before a fitter ties together piping systems that stretch the length of a space, he knows that another worker must first drop in other large equipment.
"It substantially reduces the amount of rework that can throw a project off schedule," Diakun said.
The 3-D renderings also help after the ship is part of the fleet. For example, if a valve breaks in the bowels of the ship, the system will walk workers through a sequence of how to remove it, creating the least amount of disruption to other operations.
"The ability of these models to look at just about any what-if out there is really valuable," Diakun said. "These new technologies allow us to provide cost reductions throughout the life cycle of the ship, from design to manufacturing to future maintenance."
Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Newport News shipyard Year founded: Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. was founded in 1886. Northrop Grumman purchased the yard in 2001. Number of employees: About 19,000 in Newport News. (About 40,000, including Gulf Coast shipyards.) Starting engineer salary: $57,000 (Shipyard salaries vary widely) Number of patents: 175 patents granted; eight pending. Employment: Job opportunities are posted at www.sb.northrop grumman.com/careers It's a fact: The 9 million feet of wire installed on an aircraft carrier is enough to stretch from Newport News to Denver and is equivalent of what is used in 1,800 moderately sized homes.