Shipyard Suppliers is intended to be a series of articles about local businesses that are supplying materials and services to Newport News Shipbuilding to facilitate the construction of next-generation submarines and aircraft carriers supply to our country’s Navy.
In this fifth installment, the Peninsula Chronicle spoke with Michael Schwind and Michael Mazzenga of Siemens.
Peninsula Chronicle: Tell us about Siemens.
Michael Schwind: Siemens is a global conglomerate. The analogy is that we are the General Electric of Germany. We have had a significant play in trying to develop where the next generation and transformation of the industry is going. In Siemens language, we call that Industry 4.0. With that, we have a large organization. We touch many facets of an organization, company, environment—which could be like a city—but we bring things that we develop into that digital model. So, it could be propulsion systems that would go on ships. It could be fire suppression systems. It could be programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that go down at the machine level. My group, specifically here in the Newport News area, is a software development team. We develop and deliver to our clients’ software. The name of the package is Xcelator, and the shipyard is using it. It’s significant in how the shipyard transforms itself into a digital enterprise. When we look at this product, they are not alone. Every single major program in the last five years with a Department of Defense perspective has selected our products. Things like the MQ25 Unmanned Refueler; the T7 Redhawk, which is a trainer aircraft; there’s a program with the Air Force called the Ground Base Strategic Deterrent, there’s a long-range standoff weapon; the most common fighter that is in the headlines is the Joint Strike Fighter. If we bring it down into Newport News, they’re using our products on the Columbia-class submarine, the Orca Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, and the Ford-class carrier. They’re all using that same Xcelerator platform to create that digital environment.
PC: So lots of other companies are using your products? Are there others in our area that you work with?
MS: Yes, larger companies. Rolls Royce is a customer of ours. Canon is a large customer of ours. When we look at the ecosystem at Newport News Shipyard or other companies, the goal that we have there is to provide a software package that can help a company make quick and reasonable decisions on how they design their products, how the products operate, and how they sustain that product. Our customers span companies like Gillette, who makes the Sensor razors, using the same products and solutions that the shipyard is using. General Motors is using the same exact product. The idea here is what they call the digital enterprise, but part of that is really when you get down to designing products, we call that the digital twin. That’s where you’re creating a 3D model. It’s much easier for someone to predict what’s going on from a computer screen if there’s that model and they can rotate it, they can interrogate it, they can ask questions of it. And how that starts to assemble with a larger assembly. So yes, there are a host of organizations in the area that could use this technology.
PC: It’s interesting to think a razor is using the same technology as an aircraft carrier.
MS: When you get into the mathematics for creating a product, it can be pretty complex. On the Sensor razor, they’ve got those small ribs on the handles. They are an extremely complex piece of geometry. What we’re allowed to do the way we model with the software is, we can take something complex like that and really just transform it into something simple that’s interpreted by a machine tool, let’s say on the raise of those ribs. When the machine tool comes down to create that mold, what we tell that machine to do is to take two parallel lines and two arcs at the end of it and follow a simple piece of geometry. But when you start to project that down onto a cylinder or curve, all of a sudden, we’re taking something that’s incredibly complex and making it incredibly simple.
PC: Is the shipyard using your software to manufacture things on site or are they also working with other manufacturers utilizing your software?
MS: It is both. They use it onsite. They have 860 of those design seats, but across the company they have what we call an enterprise license to manage all forms of data. So, currently I’d say they are probably running just under 4,000 of those seats. So, every piece of data that moves relative to the design, manufacture, configuration of that carrier or submarine, is being managed by that piece of software. The touchpoints are significant.
Michael Mazzenga: I think we are integral to the digital transformation that they began several years ago where traditionally, shipbuilding used large drawings to build the ships. They are really transitioning to a work packaged-based environment where they are building kind of akin to assembling a gas grill when you buy one. You have step-by-step instructions. So, I think our software has enabled them to go to a model-based environment where they can build those smaller, discrete, purposeful, work packages, instead of using these large drawings that are really difficult and it takes a lot of experience to understand how to read. I think we’re a big part of that.
PC: We have heard from workers at the shipyard that they are using tablets instead of relying on the giant blueprints you mentioned, and it’s a big improvement for them.
MM: I worked at Newport News for 30 years. I worked on Seawolf and Ford-class aircraft carriers for about 10 to 15 years. One of the things we always wanted to do was change the way we delivered that information to the waterfront. But the tools back then really were very lethargic and very labor-intensive to build. I think that today we’ve transitioned to tools that are really easy. When you are model-based, you don’t have to recreate all that data onto the drawing. You put it into the model and exploit that information and provide that to the user without a lot of manipulation. So, it really changed the game on how they do work.
PC: What is the significance of the multi-buy contracts for you?
MS: I think the importance there is it offers stability. The multi-year contracts are important because they allow the shipyard to have a consistent and stable workforce. And, as they plan for a change in the workforce where people are retiring and they are starting to bring in new designers, new manufacturing, new welders, there’s that opportunity for them to use our software to digitally train those users. So, if I’m going to come in and weld something, I can now see what that weld looks like from a 3D model. Then the 3D model also gives me the behavioral characteristics of what I want for that weld to be—the type of material I want, the material that might be behind it that could affect distortion. There are so many things that go into that. But I think the multi-year buy is critical so we can manage the workforce.
PC: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
MS: I think when we look at the industry, in fact, all of the industries as a whole, they are all going toward this digital model. But the shipyards across the country are slow to adopt. I would say Newport News is probably one of the most technically advanced shipyards in the United States. They are definitely leading the shipbuilding industry with a prowess around technology and its impact on virtual models, driving advanced decision making at a physics level. So, what they are doing, no other shipyard in the United States is doing that. I think to their credit, their leadership in how they’re using technology is going to drive what shipbuilding looks like over the next 50 years.