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+ By Art pine
COVER STORY
Uncharted Waters - Tomorrow’s complex warships will broaden the reach of marine engineering.

Not long ago, designing and building warships was a fairly straightforward affair. Hulls were made of steel. Sections of the ship were assembled as modules and welded into place, usually with electrical wiring and equipment already installed. And naval architects and marine engineers were equipped to handle whatever came up.

These days, however, naval shipbuilding technology is leaving that model in its wake. Computerization and advances in equipment and materials are spawning complex, highly integrated systems that require the expertise of engineers in a wide variety of disciplines, not just the traditional shipbuilding-related fields. As a result, some of the leading engineering schools are working on ways to broaden collaboration — by familiarizing naval architecture and marine engineering students with the principles of nanotechnology, materials, and electrical engineering, and by teaching shipbuilding basics to specialists in chemistry, electronics, and other disciplines.

“With every project you can think of, you need to have people with advanced knowledge in these specialty fields so you can take best advantage of the emerging technology,” says Manhar Dhanak, director of the Institute for Ocean and Systems Engineering, known as SeaTech, at Florida Atlantic University.

Still in its infancy, the effort has already prompted shifts in hiring, research, and curriculum development. Under the umbrella of the Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC), a 15-institution consortium based at the University of Michigan, several affiliated schools have brought in faculty members from other disciplines to help enrich their own engineering programs, particularly at the graduate level. Maritime research programs are increasingly reaching outside traditional marine-related fields. Curricula and hands-on research programs encourage students from all disciplines to collaborate. Meanwhile, universities that train specialists in such fields as nanotechnology, hydrodynamics, materials science, and computer science are instituting courses in ship structure, hull design, and propulsion systems.

 

"Most of the really hard and interesting problems are at the boundaries. All the easy problems got solved a long time ago." — Steven Ceccio, head of the Naval Engineering Education Center, led by the University of Michigan.

‘Unprecedented Capabilities’

For decades, naval architecture and marine engineering have been the classic fields for those seeking to go into ship design. A third category, naval engineering, is a broader field that represents several disciplines and sciences. But these fields, as traditionally taught and practiced, are no longer deemed sufficient for today’s shipbuilding challenges. “Most of the really hard and interesting problems [in shipbuilding-related engineering] are at the boundaries,” says Steven Ceccio, the University of Michigan professor who heads the NEEC. “All the easy problems got solved a long time ago.”

The cross-fertilization will only grow in coming years as a result of an explosion of technology in shipbuilding, argues Michael Triantafyllou, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who described the trend at a meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Naval Engineering in the 21st Century last year. “The future of naval engineering . . . will be shaped by novel and emerging technologies that will not only provide unprecedented capabilities but also require radical rethinking of naval ship and vehicle design. To fully reap the benefits, the ground must be prepared now.”

Tomorrow’s naval vessel, Triantafyllou said, will be built with hulls, framing, and structural supports made of composite materials or new high-strength steels, and protected by space-age chemical coatings designed to inhibit deposits and reduce drag, both outside the hull and in pipes that carry liquid below decks. Ships’ propulsion plants and machinery will run on hybrid or all-electric powertrains that use alternative fuels and fuel cells to help increase efficiency and save fuel. The development of all-electric ships will spawn new ways to increase automation, reduce staffing levels, and enhance reliability, even in extremely cold climates. New sensor arrays and robots will help maneuver and propel warships more efficiently, paving the way for remote inspection and even remote repair of structural materials and equipment when needed. Vessels also will use smart, autonomous air, surface, and underwater vehicles to increase their operational capability.

Warships now being built offer a glimpse of this technological future. “Today ship design is very much systems engineering,” says Kelly Cooper, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the funding agency within the Department of Defense that is helping to drive the advances.

Witness the huge DDG-1000, a guided-missile destroyer being built to supplement the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers introduced in 1991. “This is a quantum leap from anything you’ve ever seen on a surface combatant ship,” Cynthia Brown, president of the now defunct American Shipbuilding Association, said when the DDG-1000 went into production in 2006. Besides advanced weapons and fire-control apparatus, the DDG-1000 carries a new integrated power-generation system that will deliver about 10 times as much onboard electrical capacity as its predecessor, enough to power laser or electromagnetic guns, and an autonomous fire-suppression system. The ship also features a new, extra-stealthy, tumblehome hull and other design features that help reduce its magnetic, infrared, and acoustic signatures and make its image on an enemy radar screen no larger than that of a fishing boat. Together, all these changes give the vessel a significant improvement in overall defense capability.

© PRNewsFoto/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works
ABOVE: Maine shipyard workers guide one of four “Ultra Units” for the DDG-1000, the lead ship of the Zumwalt class of guided missile destroyers. © PRNewsFoto/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works.

The DDG-1000 exemplifies the Navy’s almost insatiable, yet ever changing, demand for high-technology innovations. Designers are called on to improve warships’ weaponry, radar and sonar equipment, loading of fuel and ammunition, and capacity to cope with fires and battle damage at sea. And they must enable warships to operate jointly with one another and with aircraft and helicopters. Dozens of new systems are in research and development, from high-power laser weapons and radar and wake homing devices to new materials for hulls, structures and propulsion systems, and topside equipment that can withstand terrorists’ rocket and mortar attacks. The Navy also wants improved networking that can enable ships to link up with sensors and networks at other locations, and protection for computers and communications equipment. The goal is to keep the Navy technologically ahead of all potential adversaries so that it can protect global trade routes, meet the challenge posed by China’s emergence as a regional and eventually a global power, and expand operations into the Arctic, where the melting ice cap is opening new shipping lanes and mineral extraction opportunities.

Meeting these demands is expensive. The DDG-1000’s technological advances — many of which had to be designed from scratch — ballooned the overall cost of the vessel to an eye-popping $4.1 billion a copy. That’s almost three times the price tag of the DDG-51s, and far more than the mere $750 million per ship that defense officials had estimated when the project was approved. Rather than divert a major share of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, Congress ended up approving construction of only a handful of DDG-1000s. “It’s the ship that’s threatening to shrink the fleet,” Robert Work, then an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said at the time. Work is now under secretary of the Navy.

 

Pressure to cut costs

Navy officials now recognize that gold-plated, high-performance weapons systems are on a collision course with Washington’s growing concern over debt and deficits. Pentagon budgeters are allowing $17 billion a year for shipbuilding – some $3 billion less than the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Navy will need to fulfill its plan for 275 new ships of all kinds over the next 30 years. And that sum is expected to shrink as congressional deficit reduction begins to take hold.

Indeed, saving money has itself become an important area of research. One goal is to extend ships’ life span, thereby reducing the cost of the Navy’s ship-acquisition program over the long term. “We’re looking at the total costs of ownership — not just at how much it costs to build the vessel but also what it takes to maintain it and keep it functional,” says Tony Dean, project director at the American Society of Naval Engineers. Large warships, such as aircraft carriers and auxiliary vessels, typically remain in service for 50 years, but are overhauled and upgraded every few years. Prevention of corrosion could net considerable savings over time. Across all military services, corrosion costs $22 billion a year, and Congress has pressed the Pentagon for more anti-corrosion research.

Given the array of disciplines required to develop the modern warship, it’s not surprising that the Navy has been a major force in pressing — and guiding — universities to expand the integration of traditional maritime engineering disciplines and the specialty areas. The Michigan-led NEEC receives substantial funding and technical support from the Naval Sea Systems Command and one of its components, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, which has divisions in west Bethesda, Md., and Dahlgren, Va. It is also funded by ONR, which sponsors research projects that bring engineers and scientists from multiple disciplines together.

During the past several years, universities have begun hiring new professors and researchers from outside traditional maritime-related engineering fields, ranging from computer sciences and electronic engineering to chemistry and biology, and from materials science to ultrasmart sensors. Florida Atlantic’s Manhar Dhanak, for instance, has hired four professors from “nontraditional” fields, or about a third of his department’s total faculty roll. “If you want to do anything about corrosion—a big problem in designing ships and offshore platforms of any kind—you need to know chemistry in some detail,” Dhanak says. “To accomplish that sort of thing, we have a mix. That way we make sure that various disciplines come together.”

Collaborative centers such as NEEC, MIT’s Center for Ocean Engineering, and SeaTech are cropping up all over. Their aim: foster collaboration among engineers and scientists from traditional maritime fields and new specialties such as nanotechnology – as well as government and industry personnel. Research teams typically include Ph.D. and master’s-degree candidates in the traditional maritime fields along with doctorate holders in the new specialty fields, such as nanotechnology.

Such collaborations draw support from the National Academies’ Committee on Naval Engineering in the 21st Century. In a 184-page report in September, the panel called on the Navy to bolster its oversight and evaluation of research projects and urged the Office of Naval Research to make “a special effort to encourage multidisciplinary graduate programs.” It warned that while funding for research in the traditional maritime engineering fields was likely to remain intact, new specialty areas could be “vulnerable” amid large-scale budget cutting by Congress.
Hastened by computerization of ship design and construction, the education of maritime engineers is catching up to warship construction systems that started becoming more sophisticated 25 years ago. The Office of Naval Research, concerned that the supply of engineers and scientists eligible for U.S. security clearances won’t meet demand, has spawned a plethora of programs to underwrite the development of new curricula. The Navy also provides internships, tuition aid, and stipends.

As with research, the trend in curricula is toward an interdisciplinary approach, but it’s still at an exploratory stage. The question facing educators is how to integrate what students need to learn in traditional maritime fields of naval architecture, naval engineering, and marine engineering with instruction in specialties, such as hull coatings, electric propulsion, or nanotechnology, that are becoming increasingly important in shipbuilding and design. One way is to continue concentrating on the traditional fields while requiring students majoring in these areas to take courses in the specialties. Another is to offer courses in shipbuilding-related subjects — buoyancy and stability, hull structure, and naval propulsion, for example — to students majoring in the sciences. A third option is to design a new master’s or Ph.D. degree that embraces elements of both. More and more, courses at all levels involve work on specific projects, giving students hands-on experience — along with practice in working as part of a team — before they go out into the field.

David J. Singer, a University of Michigan professor who is active in the NEEC’s efforts, says academics differ widely over which is the best course to follow: to turn students into engineers first and then expose them to courses in specialty areas, or to recruit experts in the new technology and push them to take a minor in naval engineering. What seems to work best, he says, is to train students as engineers and then provide them with the technological background they’ll need in appropriate subjects. “The issue is, how do you introduce those concepts?” Singer says. “The graduate school approach is easier. They’re already engineers by then, so they can do a deeper dive.”

With recruiting in mind, some schools also have begun offering introductory courses that seek to acquaint undergraduates with the opportunities in maritime-related fields. The Naval Surface Warfare Center and several other Navy research facilities take on graduate students and high school interns to work on projects relating to warships of all kinds. And the Defense Department sponsors tuition aid and academic stipends for students who are earning maritime-related degrees. Like other military services, the Navy has robust initiatives aimed at strengthening K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. ONR’s Kelly Cooper argues that both the Navy and academia must move to interest young people in naval engineering while they’re still in grade school: “We’re trying to interest young adults who eventually will become part of the technical workforce in fields that don’t even exist today.”

Not everyone is a fan of the multidisciplinary cross-fertilization trends in maritime engineering research and curricula. To some faculty members, the specialized add-ons may not be needed and could weaken established and necessary courses of study.

Richard Mercier, director of the Offshore Technology Research Center at Texas A&M University, says the pressure to engage in multidisciplinary research may be going too far. “The question is, what does that [cross-fertilization] mean?” he asks. “Do we need to train everybody more broadly, or do we just have to have everybody know what their limits are and whom to contact when they need help? Do faculty members know enough to be able to provide students with the breadth they need? Those are good questions.” Mercier worries that providing students with more breadth may come at the expense of depth. “Breadth is something that you need at the managerial level,” he says. “I’ve seen situations time and again where multibillion-dollar projects are managed successfully by people who came out with bachelor’s degrees.” For design and research, however, what matters is depth.

But that argument may already have been resolved in favor of the multidisciplinary approach. In fact, many faculty members are convinced it will expand significantly over the next several years. “It’s not necessarily going to be all that gradual. It could grow quite dramatically,” SeaTech’s Dhanak says. Anchors aweigh.

 

Art Pine is a Washington-based freelance writer and former Pentagon correspondent.

 



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