Years ago, Groton’s received the newly built shell of submarines and lowered equipment through holes in the top, much like building a ship in a bottle.
Today, the company that started operations in Groton 100 years ago this month, builds Virginia-class attack nuclear submarines in parts, lines them up and pieces them together like slices of a salami.
Tasks that used to take eight hours take one, said Robert Hamilton, director of communications for the company.
“If we hadn’t brought the number of hours down, we probably wouldn’t be in the submarine business,” he said.
Groton is finishing work on the USS Mississippi, a submarine designed for strength, intelligence gathering and stealth, and scheduled to be christened at the end of this year. The shipyard also has the parts of four other submarines that are under construction. Hamilton offered reporters a tour of the secure facility on Wednesday.
The shells of the submarines are built at EB's facility in Quonset, R.I. and arrive in Groton with nearly every light bulb, cable and part they need, except the key items Groton installs: electronics, communications, sonar and weapons systems.
The local shipyard installs combat systems in 30 days, then tests them for three months, a process that used to take a year and a half, said Ronald Mauldin, manager of the facility that handles the installations.
The shipyard tests early because it works on this premise: It costs $1 to fix a problem discovered at a lab, $3 to fix the same problem found in a partially-assembled submarine, and $8 to fix the problem once the ship is out to sea.
“It’s much easier to fix it here than to wait,” Mauldin said.
John Pavlos, project leader for the Virginia-class submarine program, said the Navy told the company it would buy two ships a year, if Electric Boat could get construction costs down to $2 billion per submarine. Finding ways to build the same ship at a lesser cost became a company-wide goal, he said.
“Make it better, make it cheaper and deliver on time,” he said. “So that was a huge challenge.”
Pavlos said Electric Boat redesigned the bow of the ships and made changes such as replacing individual missile tubes with fewer, larger canisters that could hold multiple weapons.
In 2008, the company built platforms in the main assembly building to make working on the unfinished subs easier. Employees take an elevator or the stairs 40 feet up, and keep equipment and tools on the platforms to save time.
The USS Mississippi already has its commander: John McGrath, assigned since 2009. He’ll have a crew of 130, most of whom will share rooms the size of a walk-in closet with five other men when the ship is out to sea. Each sleeping area holds six bunks.
Assigning a commander and assembling the crew early is necessary so they learn the specifics of the submarine they'll be in.
Otherwise, McGrath said, “It’s like showing up for your first NFL game having never played before.”
The next round of building at Electric Boat will focus on maintenance and extending the life of parts so ships can stay out at sea longer, Pavlos said.
Virginia-class subs typically have a life of about 33 years, with 14 deployments and four docks for maintenance, he said.
The goal is to add another deployment and cut maintenance stops to three.
The company is also continuing to locate staff in its facility in New London. Electric Boat has moved about 980 engineers and designers to the former Pfizer facility, and ultimately plans to have 3,600 people there by late next year.