Huntington Ingalls brings digital bent to new unmanned center

Ground now broken, Huntington Ingalls Industries' unmanned center of excellence is all about positioning the company for the same kind of leadership in that domain as in larger manned ships. HII's unmanned systems business leader shares how the center will work and what is to come.

Huntington Ingalls Industries’ strategy for the unmanned maritime vehicle arena is essentially this: be the same leader there as it is for the much larger manned ships including submarines.

HII broke ground on a new unmanned systems center of excellence Sept. 22 in Hampton, Virginia, as part of that push. The center brings together prototyping, production and testing at one location.

It is worth noting that HII has other similar facilities that focus on unmanned platforms and their augmenting technologies in Massachusetts, Florida and Washington.

At the same time, the U.S.’ largest military shipbuilder is also eyeing the Hampton site as a further step function toward where it sees unmanned systems going and what will be required for success.

“One of the most notable things is the size and the scale of the facility when it’s completed (at) 150,000 square feet,” said Duane Fotheringham, president of the unmanned systems group within HII’s technical solutions segment. “The initial focus is around the large and extra large platforms.”

HII is a main partner to Boeing on one of the Navy’s initial forays into the unmanned underwater arena. In March 2019, the Navy awarded Boeing a contract to build five Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle prototypes.

Fotheringham told me that HII’s work to support the Orca program will gradually move to Hampton as the center opens in two phases over this year and next.

“None of our other facilities would be able to manufacture at the scale that we’re able to manufacture in the center of excellence, so we’ll get unique capabilities out of that and also a fully digital manufacturing infrastructure," he said.

Two buildings will cover those 150,000 square feet across the 20-acre campus in Hampton. One at 22,000 square feet is headed toward completion by the end of this year, while the main facility at 135,000 square feet is intended to be finished in calendar year 2021’s fourth quarter.

More than 250 jobs will be created and those employees will work with HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding segment, from which undersea systems engineering capabilities could be pulled from. Fotheringham told me some of those positions are in areas such as electro-mechanics, engineering and program management.

The digital manufacturing aspect Fotheringham mentioned in our conversation is the piece that stands to enable that collaboration both at the Hampton site and across the rest of the company. HII is moving much of its digital assets into a cloud environment and also has a center of excellence dedicated to that effort.

“A distributed manufacturing organization can take advantage of the digital nature of that since we are manufacturing products in Massachusetts, Virginia Florida and Washington -- we can share information across sites,” Fotheringham said.

“It allows us to optimize our supply chain, look at capacity to make sure we’re taking advantage of both the capacity and expertise at each site, and also have all of our manufacturing and ERP systems digital and integrated.”

Then there is the building of both the actual vehicles and integrating the augmenting technologies to make them operate underwater, many times autonomously to overcome the unique challenges of operating in that environment.

Fotheringham joined HII through its acquisition earlier this year of Hydroid, where he was formerly president, and pointed to that deal as an example of the buyer’s systems integration approach. As part of that deal, HII also formed a cooperation agreement with Hydroid’s former parent Kongsberg, who provides sonars for the vehicles.

HII builds some of its own augmenting technology in-house but also partners with others for that aspect, Fotheringham said. The Hampton center and other manufacturing and fabrication facilities will focus on bringing all of those tools together.

“Making them talk, making them work together in a small confined space of an underwater vehicle, and then integrating with them for the autonomy of the vehicle, so those sensors can be used for the vehicle to complete its mission,” Fotheringham said. “That’s one of the things that makes unmanned systems unique, it’s not just the sensors but the integration of the sensors, and the integration of the sensors into the autonomy of the vehicle.”