A few years ago, Mike Butler was all ears when a rigger suggested a way to cut construction costs on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.
Instead of using cranes to assemble giant ship pieces in the yard at Newport News Shipbuilding, a forklift with an extendable boom could do some work faster and just as well, the rigger said.
After some thought, Butler went forklift shopping.
"If I don't act on these kind of things, it'll never happen," Butler recalled thinking at the time. "We went out and did it. And today, five years later, we've probably got half a dozen of them out there."
Butler is the program director for the Kennedy, or CVN-79. The ship will be christened Dec. 7 at the Newport News shipyard when Caroline Kennedy smashes a bottle of sparkling wine against a gray steel hulk that is longer than three football fields.
It is the only place in the country where a ceremony like this happens. The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy.
Kennedy's christening is about three months ahead of schedule. Its price tag is about $11.4 billion, down from the $12.9 billion cost for the previous ship, the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford.
A few obvious factors account for some of that savings.
The Navy originally planned to phase in brand-new systems over several aircraft carriers. Then in the early 2000s, the decision was made to pack everything on the Ford.
The late Sen. John McCain once referred to that as "the original sin" of the Ford program. Putting so many new, untested components on a single ship increased the risk, and it showed. The Navy and shipyard struggled to refine Ford's new catapults and arresting gear. Work continues on the ship's advanced weapons elevators.
Ford's construction also began before its design was complete, a move Navy leaders later came to regret. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was famously quoted in an interview as saying the Ford was "a poster child for how not to build a ship."
By contrast, Kennedy started with a completed design in hand. While the technology is still new, shipbuilders had been through it once with Ford.
But the biggest change from ship to ship, Butler said, was a transformation in culture that encouraged workers like that anonymous rigger to come forward and make a pitch. It happened over and over. Welders and wrench-turners. Designers and engineers. Even suppliers chipped in with suggestions.
"It came from the deck plate up," he said. "But the deck plate is a lot of places."
After working through so many challenges on Ford, the shipyard had a suggestion box of some 60,000 items when it turned to Kennedy. The company developed a business case for each one and ranked them. To be accepted, the idea had to have a clear payoff, said Lucas Hicks, vice president of new construction-aircraft carrier programs.
"If we had a great idea that cost $10,000, we would have to reap $10,000 on that single ship," he said. "Each thing earns its way into the design based on the risk versus opportunity."
Some suggestions came too late for Kennedy, but could be incorporated on the third and fourth ships of the Ford class, which are under contract.
The company will need those suggestions to pay dividends over the life of the Ford-class program. Despite progress, shipbuilders have a ways to go.
Cost Savings, But . . .
With the christening nearly at hand, there is good news to report on the efficiency front.
Labor costs on Kennedy are down 16% compared to Ford. That is unprecedented in nuclear-powered aircraft carrier construction, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In fact, it's not even close.
The next biggest drop is 9.3% between the first-in-class USS Nimitz, commissioned in 1975, and the follow-on ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But the yard isn't celebrating. The contract stipulates an 18% labor cost reduction from ship to ship. Hicks said more opportunities for savings are ahead because the ship isn't scheduled for delivery to the Navy until 2022.
"We're at 16% -- not where we want to be," Hicks said. "We want to be at 18%. We'd love to be at 20%. We're at 16 today and we do see opportunity going forward. The test program is the next step. There is probably upside once we get launched and into the river."
The Navy expects the yard to continue finding efficiencies after Kennedy is delivered. The next two Ford-class carriers fall under a single contract -- the first double-buy of aircraft carriers since the Reagan administration -- and the company's target is an 18% reduction over both ships.
Hicks said he expects to incorporate more lessons as it moves to the future USS Enterprise, also known as CVN-80, and the as-yet-unnamed CVN-81.
"The ships are not cookie cutters from Ford to Kennedy to 80 and 81," Hicks said. "We learn more and more every day."
Want to Watch?
Dailypress.com and pilotonline.com will link to a webcast of the christening ceremony of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, which begins 11 a.m. Dec. 7.
Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy's daughter and the ship's sponsor, will smash a bottle of American sparkling wine across the ship's hull. The principal speaker is Charles Frank Bolden Jr., former NASA administrator and a retired Marine Corps major general.
Invited guests include shipbuilders, Kennedy sailors and their respective families. The ceremony is not open to the public.
This article is written by Hugh Lessig from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.