Naval Shipyard Starts "Innovation Lab" to Drive Tech Adoption

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Rear Adm. James McNeal of Naval Supply Systems Command visits the lab, June 2016 (USN)

By Navy Live 2018-02-06 16:18:00

Norfolk Naval Shipyard employees clad in exoskeletons for work in the drydock. Workers surveying an augmented reality 3-D model in advance of a shipcheck. Workers using laser ablators that can zap rust from a bulkhead in a matter of seconds. 

These are all examples of the vision of a vital future at the shipyard, and all are under investigation at Norfolk's Technology and Innovation Lab. The lab provides a venue for brainstorming innovation leads and testing employee ideas, which could result in improved safety and faster production.  

"It's not necessarily using the lab's advanced technology the way the manufacturer says to use it, it's about the creativity of our workforce taking these tools and using them in ways that haven't even been thought of yet," said Dan Adams, the head of community practice for the innovation lab. "I'm a firm believer that with nearly 12,000 people, we have a lot of creative energy at the shipyard." 

Adams says that the lab works with 18 shipyard subcommittees.  "Each subcommittee is kind of its own cross-functional team with members from different departments across the shipyard," said Adams. "We've created an environment conducive to real collaboration and the development of a shared vision." 

Norfolk's 3D printing capability is currently limited to plastic, but that's already proving to be a useful medium, resulting in products that reduce strain on the workforce. "[One worker] came to us and said, 'I carry this 100 lb. transducer through the sub into the sonar dome to do fit-ups. Is there any way we can print a 3D replica?' We modeled it using the 3D software, printed it out, [shared] it with the other shipyards, and now they're doing the exact same thing. It's worked out great!" said Adams. This accurate representation of the component weighs just five pounds.

Laser scanning also holds potential for the shipyard's future. It's already been used on USS La Jolla's piping system. "With a large area scanner, a laser does 360-degree scanning," said Brian Presson, the lead for laser scanning integration. "You get millions of data points, which form what's called a point cloud of data. We can go out for a ship check, and accurately capture a space that we need to do work in. We can turn that point cloud into a solid 3-D model. Say, we're going to chop the pipe here, we're going pull out all this stuff out and bring the new one in, we've got to make sure it lines up with our connection point. You can verify whether it lines up or not." 

Thanks to augmented reality, Adams also envisions the day a new shipyard employee can "put some goggles on, look at content captured with the laser scanning, and walk up to the bulkhead while someone explains, 'that's this and this,' leaning in and peeling back the onion layers and seeing the internal components explained before they ever go to work into that environment. That's a game changer right there." 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.