KETCHIKAN -- Alaska Ship & Drydock is getting ready to start construction of a unique ship next month.
The Ketchikan-based company has been developing and testing new, cutting-edge manufacturing processes and equipment for the project, according to ASD representatives.
"How we're going to fabricate this ship represents advanced manufacturing capacity that's being built in Ketchikan as a result of having the 'E-craft,' " ASD project manager Doug Ward told a Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience recently.
The E-craft -- now officially named the MV Susitna -- is an experimental prototype being constructed on behalf of the U.S. Office of Naval Research. ONR will be testing the design's capabilities for high-speed, high-capacity operations in nearly all sea states, including shallow water.
The 195-foot catamaran-style ship will have a movable center deck that can be raised and lowered depending on the ship's load and on sea conditions. The ship will be able to operate in three modes: high-speed catamaran; a "small-water-area-twin-hull" mode for heavy loads, medium speeds and good seakeeping; and a monohull mode for shallow water operations and beach landings.
In addition to being the first-ever ship to have a movable center section, the Susitna will be the world's first catamaran with ice-breaking capabilities, said Alan Coffin, ASD's Susitna project manager.
"There's not another ship in the world, commercial or military, that does the same things as this one," Ward said.
Although the Susitna's design is being tested for military applications, this specific ship will be used as a ferry by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, mostly across a 2.6-mile stretch of Knik Arm between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie.
The E-craft concept was developed by Lockheed Martin. The final design is being done by the Seattle-based naval architecture firm of Guido Perla & Associates.
Since the formal keel-laying ceremony in August, ASD has been busy developing its manufacturing processes for the Susitna project -- and installing and adapting some innovative new equipment at the state-owned shipyard.
"We're automating as much as we can," Coffin said. "It's new technology for the shipyard. It's good for the workers in the long term. ... A little bit better working conditions, a little bit better equipment to work with."
Basically, ASD will be building a series of approximately 36-foot, 15-ton individual modules that later will be connected to form the vessel's hull.
ASD's new gear for building the modules includes a table with 14 hydraulic cylinders capable of bending and holding the steel components of a module panel in place for welding.
The usual way of building a panel would be to bend each piece to be used for the panel separately before welding, said Ward.
"(But) in this case, we're holding all the pieces together at one time and then using the hydraulics to force the curvature into the panel and then welding though on that," Ward said. "So that's automating a lot of the labor that would normally be associated with building curved panels."
Some of the welding will be automated as well. A new dual-head welding machine will be able to weld a 20-foot beam in about five minutes, Coffin said.
"You just turn it loose and tell it where you want it to weld, and it can weld both sides (of the beam) at one time," Coffin said.
Each module will take shape on a massive "mandrel assembly."
This apparatus has a 40-foot positioner arm extending horizontally from a machine that can rotate the module-laden arm.
"We'll be able to rotate the module around so it's in the best position for the workers, both for the quality and for the workers' ergonomics," Coffin said.
Some of the new equipment is unique to the shipyard, and shipyard staff have modified some pieces for specific tasks and greater efficiency.
"It's nice to have people at the shipyard here that are innovative," Coffin said. "In a small community like Ketchikan, you need to be innovative. You can't just run down to the store and buy a new welding machine."
He praised the skill levels of ASD's workforce, which, he said, is all local at this time.
"We're doing a lot of things here that are considered leading-edge technology," Coffin said. "The knowledge base we have here in Ketchikan is good. Surprisingly good."
Ward said ASD has averaged about 100 employees during the past two years and anticipates holding steady at between 80 and 120 workers for the next two years.
As skilled as it is, ASD's workforce is not "entirely qualified" for the Susitna project yet.
ASD is developing a new work-description process that will result in a workforce education program for training current and new workers, according to Ward.
"We're analyzing how we do the work and what the key tasks are," Ward said, adding that the information will be used to develop "education modules" for worker training.
"We're developing Ketchikan-specific career paths for specific work descriptions we're developing right now," he said.
ASD will announce more details of the worker education program within the next few months, he said.
"It will be as innovative as the E-craft," he said.
The Susitna project and workforce development aren't the only major tasks facing ASD. The company also is maintaining its ship repair and maintenance business at the shipyard, which is undergoing the start of approximately $50 million in capital improvements.
Ward briefly addressed the complexity of juggling the various tasks.
"Our challenge is to build an innovative ship using innovative production processes in a shipyard that isn't built yet," Ward told the chamber of commerce audience. "By the way, also we don't have an entirely qualified workforce yet. So not only are we building a shipyard, but we're building a workforce at the same time."
Regarding the Susitna, ASD has completed one prototype module to help develop its systems, methodology and equipment for the project, according to Coffin.
Work on modules for the actual ship is expected to begin in February, he said. The Susitna project, which will include a significant number of sea trials locally, is anticipated to be complete in late 2008.
By SCOTT BOWLEN
Ketchikan Daily News