Building Navy ships faster-and for less- Maine's Bath Iron Works
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But unlike many one-industry towns, Bath breeds workers who actively encourage their children to go into the plant. And BIW responds. "We encourage nepotism," laughs Mr. Kerr, noting that young workers excel because of peer pressure and "because Uncle Fred and Aunt May are watching you."Skip to next paragraph
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That willingness to work hard also springs from plant conditions. "If a man's working in a junk shop, with stuff all over and the ships are late," says Mr. Sullivan, "that affects his philosophy." His emphasis on what he calls "housekeeping and safety" produces a yard which, by heavy industry standards, is very clean. The result: higher productivity, low turnover of pesonnel, and what company officials describe as one of the best safety records in the industry. And, says Mr. Sullivan, absenteeism has dropped to below 5 percent in the past few years -- in an industry with an average absenteeism of 20 percent.
Also figuring into the success is the management structure -- monthly (not quarterly) meetings where key managers review their progress, an apprentice program which has now trained 80 percent of the plant's supervisors, and a relation with the parent company that has allowed substantial investment at opportune times. One example: the towering red-and-white, 220-ton crane, a landmark familiar to tourists along Route 1.
But crucial to BIW's success, say many observers, is a program of "peroutfitting." The ships are built in modules of up to 200 tons each. Seventeen of them make up a naval frigate, while 100 may be brought together for larger ships. When ready, they are swung into place by the crane. Before they are joined, however, their walls, floors, and ceilings are outfitted with pipes and wired -- in contrast to most shipbuilding practices, in which the entire hull is assembled before the wires and pipes are installed.
The result: higher productivity, since the typically cramped areas below decks are more easily accessible while the ship is still is pieces. The challenge: making the pieces fit. That requires extremely precise planning -- and a work force capable of working to close tolerances. Quips Mr. Kerr: "Schedule and planning is a religion here." The planning, however, produces ships that are 75 percent complete at launch -- rather than the more customary 20 to 30 percent complete.
All of this translates into an American shipbuilding industry that is competitive in a world market -- so much so that firms from around the globe have sent representatives to Bath to see how it is done. One official recalled that a team from British Shipbuilders, on being told that a guided missile frigate required 1.6 million man-hours of work, responded that the same ship built in Britain would require 5 million man-hours.
Where will this success take them? BIW officials remain optimistic, foreseeing an upsurge in all types of marine work in the next decade. Edwin Hood, chairman of the Shipbuilders' Council of America, however, notes that the world market is still depressed. "I personally don't think it will begin to accelerate before 1984-85," he told the Monitor. Even new defense spending will not be felt by the nation's 25 shipyards and their 160,000 employees for another three years.
As for commercial building, that is being taken over by Japan, with South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil in hot pursuit. Some of these governments, Mr. Hood notes, offer subsidies that allow yards to build ships at 40 percent below cost.
But the often-blamed bugbear of the industry -- militant unionism -- does not seem to be a factor in this quiet town. The last strike was in 1976. Union president Jim Harrington has his complaints about the management, pointing to some unsettled grievances. But as he looks ahead to contract talks in 1982, he notes that "it's an exciting time."
And with what sounds like common-sense Maine wisdom, he summarizes his position: "They've got to make money so that we can."