Cruising Together

Posted on Sep 9, 2011 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

On first glance, the differences between a luxury yacht built by Burger Boat and a 377-foot long Littoral Combat Ship for the U.S. Navy built at Marinette Marine Corporation (MMC) seem vast. The scale of the work is different, much of the material differs, and MMC’s military work carries with it a level of government oversight that doesn’t enter into the picture in yacht building.

But as executives in the ship building industry in Northeast Wisconsin recognize, their shared interests are more significant than product differences. The common goals start with ensuring a well-trained workforce, which was the impetus behind the founding of the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance earlier this year — a group begun by seven ship manufacturers and three educational institutions to promote ship building in the New North.

“Clearly, the challenge at our front door is in education and hiring,” says Charles Goddard, who became MMC’s president and CEO in June. “Over the next year and a half, we’ll need to approximately double our union and salaried employees in the shipyard. That’s quite a challenge.”
But the collaboration among NCMMA members extends to other interests such as joint procurement, branding and sharing best practices in areas like lean manufacturing. Members say that even though workforce development is the alliance’s roots, there are other synergies to be found.

Brand the region

Just simply touting the region’s ship building strength — such as the number of manufacturers and access to the sea for larger vessels — is seen as an important part of what the alliance does. “We thought there would be an opportunity to promote the region as a ship-building and yacht-building center of excellence,” says alliance chairman Mark Spicknall, who is MCC’s director of production control.

The alliance hopes that by branding the region as a true “coast” for ship building, it will be better positioned against builders in regions like the Gulf Coast or East Coast, says alliance coordinator Ann Franz, strategic partnerships manager with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
“Branding was why the members chose the name ‘North Coast’ alliance rather saying, ‘Great Lakes’ alliance,” says Franz. “They wanted potential buyers or people involved with government contracts to think of the region as a true, vital coast.”

The alliance’s website is one means of branding, but alliance members also plan to co-promote the alliance

at trade shows. These efforts will be low key, but also low cost. For instance, at an alliance board meeting in August, Josh Delforge, director of design engineering at Marquis Yachts, brought in a sample design for an alliance logo sticker that easily could be applied to the back of a  company brochure. “Within the industry, it makes sense to promote the alliance and let people know we are working together,” he says.

Education & beyond

When MMC was vying for further work on the LCS program, it reached out to NWTC, one of the three schools in the alliance, to discuss ways to demonstrate to the U.S. Navy that the company had access to strong education. From that initial contact, NWTC President Jeff Rafn says there came a realization that there were several ship-building companies in the region, as well as other schools with relevant education. “We soon realized that it might it be possible to pull all those folks together and really focus on the progress of the ship building industry for the region,”
he says.

Before long, the marine alliance effort came together styled along the structure of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, Rafn says. Already, there are fruits of the education-building effort, such as the start of a one-year program for marine construction, and a two-year program for marine engineering. Both programs are showing strong student interest, says Rafn, especially the one-year construction program, which was nearly full for fall classes by mid-summer.

Some of the core education for the marine programs is a repackaging of course content that already existed, but structured as part of a marine-specific program, along with additional training in areas like marine welding techniques or shipyard safety. “As an outcome of the alliance, there is specific programming, and we are getting students into those programs,” Rafn says.

Involvement in the alliance is expected to raise awareness that technical colleges in the New North are equipped to train workers to meet the needs of the ship-building industry, says Rafn. “We are going to be known as a place to go for ship-building education, not only in this region, but around the Midwest.”

If that sounds like a bit of boast, that’s OK with Rafn, who doesn’t shy away from pointing out the regional industry’s strengths. “Ship building is a really big deal here, and it’s becoming an even bigger deal,” he says.

A changing industry
The biggest shot in the arm for the industry came last year, when a multi-company industry team with MMC as the main builder landed a contract to build 10 LCSs for the Navy over the next four years. The LCS is a relatively small, but fast surface ship, and MMC hopes the Navy will order more of the ships beyond the current bulk buy.

MMC’s parent company, Fincantieri Marine Group, also owns two other alliance members: ACE Marine of Green Bay and Bay Shipbuilding Company in Sturgeon Bay. Those companies also have landed significant contracts. ACE is in the midst of a contract to build at least 90 Response Boat Medium craft for the U.S. Coast Guard, while in March, Fincantieri announced that Bay Shipbuilding will build two large (92.4 meters long) platform supply vessels.

Such hefty contracts, along with new projects for the yacht builders, have the region’s ship-building sector in growth mode. At MMC alone, Goddard says the LCS contract will mean the company needs to hire about 35 people a month over the next year.

But can the alliance help the region’s ship builders thrive long term, and somehow minimize the feast-or-famine demand pattern common to the industry? Alliance members aren’t ready to make bold growth claims, but   they do believe consistent branding will be good for member companies.
“The image building will help with recruitment and retention over the long term,” says Pete Bilski, vice president of human resources at Burger Boat in Manitowoc.

Bilski lauds the alliance website for posting job openings and allowing potential employees to post their qualifications. He adds that as part of promoting a positive industry image for the region’s ship builders, the alliance hopes to showcase the collective industrial base as one that exemplifies design excellence, efficient production, on-time delivery, and superior quality. In turn, it’s hoped that conveying these qualities will aid growth.
But proving characteristics like efficient production ultimately relies on actual improvements to manufacturing processes. Alliance members say those innovations not only are taking place, they are starting to be shared as best practices. In particular, alliance members have studied ways to transform production from a more traditional, craft-oriented approach to a leaner, more modular approach.

Traditionally, says MMC’s Goddard, ship building has been more like erecting a large building where the main structure — the hull — gets built, with successive waves of work done on the hull by craftsmen such as welders, fitters, painters, or electricians. This project-based approach tends to be inefficient because each type of worker has to haul specialized tools and materials onto the ship, resulting in more materials handling and set-up tasks. But ship building has become more modular, says Goddard, with multi-trade work teams working on smaller sections or stages of ships in a more assembly-line fashion.

“I think if you look at the most successful naval ship builders in the country, they have adapted those kinds of manufacturing processes, where they use modular construction, and they try to do as much outfitting of the modules before they stitch them together and erect the ship,” Goddard says. “And that’s exactly the approach that we are adopting.”

The modular approach is considered lean because it eliminates much of the wasted effort that exists in transporting materials or finding tools. “You want your workers to be in a situation almost like what surgeons in operating rooms have — where the surgeons have all the instruments and materials they need presented right in front of them,” Goddard says.

Regionally, ACE Marine is an advanced practitioner of this modular approach with its RBM contract, which produces 18 RBMs per year. In August, alliance members toured ACE to view the techniques, which includes the use of Kanban-based materials management, and etching of work instructions on large aluminum parts.

While yacht builders aren’t building the same ship over and over— and thus can’t easily justify techniques such as having panel suppliers etch extra data on parts — there are lean techniques even a yacht builder can explore, notes Bilski. For example, he says, simplifying access to common tools by using tool carts might work at Burger Boat.

“You always learn another dimension when you see how others do things,” Bilski says. “With lean, it’s about how you attack problems and find waste — not just how you manufacture or assemble a part.”

Enough differences remain in ship building that members can’t replicate everything another site is doing, notes MMC’s Spicknall, but that still leaves plenty of room to weave in best practices.
“Whenever we visit other facilities,” he says, “we are looking for good ideas and trying to incorporate the best of what we see that fits with our environments.” ?