Keyport looks to high-tech, sci-fi for inspiration

KEYPORT — Personal computers. Video games. Even Star Trek.

While looking for better and more cost efficient ways to do its work, Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport looks to all sorts of things for inspiration.

In the age of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) activities, Keyport is slowly finding its particular niche in the private sector. From technology to processes and even partnerships, the test, repair, readiness and support facility on Ne-Si-Ka Bay is constantly seeking to better itself.

“This has been a pretty steady work load for us here at Keyport,” commented Capt. Daniel Looney, Commander of NUWC Keyport. “We’re working closely with industry as we look for the best solution and the most cost effective solution.”

One example of using the knowledge of the private sector to enhance the military can easily be seen in the Tomahawk missile control systems that have been developed at Keyport since the early 1990s. The more than 800 Tomahawks fired during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were controlled by the setups, which utilize off-the-shelf personal computer components.

Compared to the previous practice of creating all modules in-house, Keyport is estimated to have saved more than $40 million by developing a system based on commercially-bought hardware. But that doesn’t mean they’ll all soon be out of jobs. The pieces may be cheaper, but the facility still undertakes rigorous testing and evaluation of each system to ensure they’ll be able to continue to serve sailors for the long term.

“All these things are basically right off the shelf,” said Michael Kelf, Integrated Mine Warfare Supportability Department Head. “It’s basically things that industry is building for the consumer market so the life span is 12-18 months and then they no longer support it. So, if we want to keep the fleet supplied, we have to perform testing and evaluations of these things.”

Another technology gleaned from the private sector is the new Virtual Radio Room. The simulated submarine radio room environment is based on the same macromedia technology used by video games like doom. Instead of a shoreboard radio room simulator that costs $10 million to build and $1 million per year to maintain, the virtual environment is much less costly but provides the same training, testing, reporting and scoring capabilities.

“It’s a virtual room they can walk into and it’s very intuitive to the young kids we’ve got coming into the Navy right now,” said Brad Weiner of the Virtual Training Technology branch of Keyport. “They can prove to their superiors that they’re ready to use this technology without breaking it.”

Ensuring less breakage of costly hardware is also the aim of the laser cladding technology developed at Keyport. The technique, which saved the Navy $1,050,000 in the first six months of use, uses a laser to either repair corrosion holes on or strip paint from sensitive torpedo components. And further cost savings are expected through extended use of this technology.

“Pearl Harbor spends 600-700 man hours on electro-plating because its so much warmer there and they get corrosion so much faster,” explained Sarah Bruce of the Laser Cladding and Rapid Prototyping Division. “We’re working on an overlay so that they could do laser cladding and that would take the time down to about 50-60 man hours.”

Lasers are also used in rapid prototyping, where a three dimensional object is created by thin, alternating layers of material being laid down and then melted into correct shapes. The technology has not only saved the Navy money, but also man hours in that engineers don’t have to hand-machine custom parts any longer.

“This is our precursor to the Star Trek replicator,” Looney commented with a laugh.

The team started out creating rapid prototype pieces in plastics and rubbers and have since moved into experimenting with different types of metals.

“We foresee eventually having these shipboard so they could make whatever part they needed right there,” Bruce said.

Even on the nuts-and-bolts side of the shops, where torpedoes are actually constructed, automation is creeping in. A heavyweight torpedo can take up to 240 man hours to build and at one time, the process was tracked using stacks and stacks of paper. Today, staff use electronic systems to chart the progress of each piece.

“We hope to eventually mature this to the point that we don’t need paper anymore,” said John Dewire of the Torpedo Maintenance Depot Facility.

And as for the future of Keyport, Looney said he can never be sure. One reality of BRAC is that the bases are simply asked to supply certain information and it is up to the particular committees to decide on base closures and realignments. But one thing’s for sure, Looney said, Keyport is doing the best it can to maintain its unique functions.

“We can never know for sure but I think we are in kind of a static mode right now whereas the ‘90s were more of a downsizing time for us,” he commented.

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