Hugh Lessig, Newport News Daily Press
22 June 2015
NEWPORT NEWS – Newport News Shipbuilding broke ground Monday on a new assembly area that signifies "breaking the mold on how we build aircraft carriers and submarines," the shipyard president said.
Dubbed the Joint Manufacturing Assembly Facility, it will rise from the North Yard near 68th Street and Huntington Avenue, and grow in phases to a quarter of a million square feet – 100,000 square feet larger than a Wal-Mart distribution center. The first phase will be ready in 2017.
The shipyard broke ground on a new facility for submarine and aircraft carrier construction on Monday, June 22. Construction will take place on the outskirts of the north yard.
Instead of an aircraft carrier or submarine building, this site will support work for both programs, said shipyard President Matt Mulherin. More work will move indoors, meaning fewer weather-related delays. Mulherin said it will allow the yard to increase efficiency and give it a competitive edge "in an industry faced with tightening defense dollars and budget cuts."
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole U.S. manufacturer of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and one of two yards that builds nuclear submarines.
It has faced increased pressure to rein in costs, especially on the new Ford-class carrier program, where the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford will cost more than 20 percent more than original estimates. The second ship, the John F. Kennedy, is being built under a cost cap.
The JMAF, in shipyard speak, will house multiple work sites, heavy cranes, specialty paint shops and automated equipment, allowing more work to be done indoors, protecting shipbuilders and materials from the weather.
Mulherin called it "a big step forward."
This past winter, the shipyard lost eight days of work because of weather, he said. The recent run of 90-degree-plus days has prompted Mulherin to institute liberal leave for six or seven days so far this year – and summer has just begun.
The project came about thanks to a previous failure.
Six years ago, ground was broken in that same area on a nuclear component manufacturing facility, a venture between the shipyard and French nuclear company Areva. The project stalled in 2011 and fizzled in 2012, attributed to unfavorable market conditions and a lack of clarity on U.S. energy policy, Areva officials said at the time.
Left behind were rows and rows of heavy pilings driven into the ground to accommodate Areva's operation. In looking to expand, Mulherin said he considered other areas of the yard that would have required demolition. This area came ready made.
The project also came with help from the Navy.
The $3.35 billion contract for construction of the Kennedy included financial incentives for the shipyard to invest in its facilities.
Rear Adm. Tom Moore, the program executive officer of aircraft carriers, told the Daily Press last week that this particular project had the Navy's endorsement – and help. He declined to get into specifics, but said it helps the Navy any time Newport News can increase its efficiency, calling it "the gift that keeps on giving."
Mulherin agreed about the long-term benefit. For the third Ford-class carrier, the Enterprise, "I have to price in the efficiencies that this facility gives. It works very well for them."
Ray Bagley, vice president of trade operations, said the facility will change the landscape at the sprawling yard. Built just north of Dry Dock 12, the fully developed site will cover 250,000 square feet. He compared it to a Wal-Mart distribution center, plus another notable building in the yard, a 60,000-square-foot submarine outfitting facility.
The project is still being designed. The shipyard has not hired a builder and could not provide a project cost.
A few dozen workers and Newport News city officials braved the hot sun to attend the groundbreaking Monday. That included Vice Mayor Robert S. Coleman, who lauded the investment as a way of keeping good jobs in the city.
When it came time to grab a shovel, pipe fitter Betty Hazelwood of Newport News was asked to lend a hand. Hazelwood, a 14-year employee, works in the submarine outfitting facility,
"I'm excited," she said. "I was looking at the picture of it – that's huge."