October 19, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

Austal USA Gives Gulf Coast Technology Council Glimpses of Innovation

Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Austal held a combined ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the official opening of three new facilities including Phase 2 of the Modular Manufacturing Facility, the office complex and Assembly Bay Five at the company's ship building facilities in Mobile,
The Austal emblem is seen on the wall inside Austal USA's new office complex in this July 2012 file photo. (Press-Register, Bill Starling)

MOBILE, Alabama - From increased automation to a focus on linear work flow, improved efficiencies are a direct result of technological innovations adopted by Austal USA since setting up shop in Mobile in 1999.

Anton Schmieman, a business development manager for the Australian shipbuilder's Mobile-based operations, told members of the Gulf Coast Technology Council Wednesday that the company's selection of a green-field site on the Mobile River more than 12 years ago has allowed Austal to construct and tailor a facility so efficient the team reduced labor costs by 30 percent between construction of its first and second littoral combat ships for the U.S. Navy.

The feat might seem minor for an international shipbuilding juggernaut, but considering Austal-built vessels will account for roughly one-fifth of the Navy's fleet by 2030, every penny saved on the front end boosts the quality of the finished products, Schmieman said.

The crowd of about 50 at Buffalo Wild Wings on Airport Boulevard ranged from IT professionals and engineers to staffing executives and students, and they listened intently as Australian-born Schmieman delved into some of the more technical inner-workings the largest aluminum shipbuilder in the world leverages to keep costs in check while still meeting the mounting demands of global commercial and defense customers.

"We innovate in a lot ways on the manufacturing side and in support services," he said, noting every second counts when it takes 23 weeks to complete the modules necessary for assembly of each vessel.

In turn, the company uses manufacturing resource planning and radio-frequency identification methods to track every single component of every eventual module from the time it shows up in the on-site warehouse through the manufacturing facility and beyond to the final assembly lines. In addition, Austal has incorporated a scalable network for controlling and monitoring every aspect of a vessel's production and operation to a degree that even allows for remote access for troubleshooting.

A few other technological highlights that have helped the company reduce costs include the use of:

Three-dimensional modeling.

Automated cable spools that replace the need for four employees to measure and cut cable, freeing up all of the roughly 600 employees per shift for more vital jobs.

Vending machines that are wi-fi enabled to communicate directly with the vendors, so employees can more readily access "consumable" items such as gloves and safety goggles without leaving the production floor.

Above all, Schmieman said the Mobile plant's modular manufacturing increases productivity because fixed workstations for each module "give us finite, manageable, measurable, repeatable work."

Steering committee member Brad Armstrong of Hixardt Technologies Inc. said the group's next meeting will be held Dec. 12 and will feature the council's annual scholarship presentations.

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