By Geoff Fein

MOBILE, Ala.-Since first deciding to build its shipyard here, Austal USA has invested upward of $155 million to build a new modular manufacturing facility (MMF), with plans for a second building moving forward, according to a company executive.

“This facility wasn’t here a year ago,” Joe Rella, president and chief operating officer, told reporters during a briefing at the shipyard last week.

“We stood the first vertical steel column January of last year. We took possession of this building in September of 2009. We just started fabrication three months ago, December 18, on JHSV,” he said. “This building was completed on time and on budget. This is Phase I of our expansion. Phase II will include a second MMF equal in size. So we will double out manufacturing space.”

The Join High Speed Vessel, or JHSV, will be the first ship built entirely in the MMF, Rella added.

Austal invested $85 million for the Phase I MMF and will invest $66 million for MMF Phase II, he noted.

Austal USA has done site work already for Phase II, Rella said. “When we built Phase I we prepared the site for Phase II.

“Because it will be exactly like Phase I MMF, we have selected the contractor, we know the amount of steel, and we know the amount of cement, so we are ready. We know exactly what we are facing,” he added.

When completed, the two MMFs will sit side-by-side occupying a large section of the southern end of the shipyard’s property.

“With the expansion of Phase I and II we have the design capacity for six ships,” Rella said. “The requirement would be for two JHSVs and two LCS. So essentially what this does, we will have reserve capacity.”

Austal USA is setting itself up to meet the demands of the customer as well as having a high-rate production manufacturing environment, Craig Perciavalle, vice president of operations, told reporters.

Austal USA is a ship builder and ship manufacturer and the MMF is what sets the company up to do that, he added.

“The neat thing about our facility, we were able to build it from scratch, so everything we wanted we got,” Perciavalle said. “We didn’t have to take an existing facility and try to work around.”

Phase I is an assembly line process, he noted. Tail assemblies become larger assemblies which then move onto the module phase and eventually to the final assembly bay to be erected, Perciavalle added.

“We have teams of people [at] workstations, we don’t have teams of people moving about,” he said. “They are doing the same thing in the same spot over and over again in an assembly line fashion so they have repetition.”

That repetition improves efficiencies, reduces costs, and helps Austal USA improve throughput as well, Perciavalle added.

He told reporters Austal took the best practices from multiple industries across the world, from shipyards, both in the United States and overseas, as well as airplane manufacturers and the automotive industry.

“Most importantly, we took lessons learned from Austal ships, who have been doing this for 20 years, and took that and applied that to what we have today as well,” Perciavalle said.

Although the facility is designed to build six ships a year, Perciavalle noted it’s very flexible. “We can do something different going forward if we need to. We made it very flexible and very efficient for the product that we build here today.”

Adjacent to the Austal yard, the state is building a 60,000 square foot maritime training center, of which two-thirds will be set aside for Austal’s use, Rella said.

Austal currently has a six-week training program it runs at another site, so the shipyard will have the schooling in place once the center is up and running, he added.

“You don’t come in and then get trained,” Rella said, “you get trained and then come in to Austal.”