Newport News Shipbuilding Fires Out Battle-Ready Castings

K. Phelan

Anyone who’s ever toured a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier or submarine remembers the awe they experienced walking through a sophisticated “city” on water or squeezing through the tight confines of an underwater vessel. But for the 140 foundry workers at AFS Corporate Member Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), awe is surpassed by an immense pride they carry as members of a six-generation family of shipbuilders serving the U.S. Navy and only the Navy—and hence contributing to the defense of their country.  

“I am super proud of what we do in our foundry; there’s none like it,” said NNS Vice President of Manufacturing Julia Jones. “And I know that my team members are super proud, not just of the work they do, but they understand the mission of what they’re doing and who they’re providing it to. So, we’re very proud to be shipbuilders—it is very unique. I don’t know of anywhere else outside of our foundry where you can see the work that we do here. The size and the magnitude of what we’re doing is amazing.”

Illustrating that magnitude, she said the NNS foundry has been supporting construction for the next Enterprise (CVN 80) nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and has completed all 10 rudder castings, including a port and starboard rudder center, each weighing 110,000 lbs.—the largest castings they’ve ever poured. The combined pour weight for all 10 castings was 756,000 lbs. 
The Navy’s CVN 80 will carry on the name of CVN 65 Enterprise, which was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, also built at NNS.

The foundry also recently completed the first castings for the 38th Virginia-class submarine, SSN811. A total of 240 castings are required for each submarine in this class, the most advanced attack submarines in the world. NNS is producing these submarines as part of an innovative agreement with General Dynamics Electric Boat—the team has delivered 21 Virginia-class boats to date, and work continues on 12 more. 

Never Static

Just as its foundry is a part of something bigger than itself, NNS too is one part of a bigger whole as a division of HII, a $9+ billion company that has built 70% of the Navy fleet of warships. NNS employs 25,000 company-wide and is the largest industrial employer in Virginia. It’s also the only shipyard in the U.S. to operate its own captive foundry, which produces approximately 1,000 castings per year inside a 200,000-sq.-ft. facility, pouring metals ranging from high-yield and carbon steel, to nickel aluminum and manganese bronzes, to copper nickel alloys.

NNS’s pattern shop has been operating since 1890 and has resided at its current location since 1918. Today, it boasts a five-axis milling machine. At the other end of the casting process, the NNS lab verifies proper chemistry from casting samples and performs mechanical tests on test bars poured with castings to ensure required strength and ductility. Meanwhile, foundry inspectors are responsible for verifying casting dimensions and perform surface inspection and radiographic testing to make sure internal cracks aren’t present. 

Castings are made in traditional sand molds, but NNS ensures its foundry is advancing at the pace of new technology—and to the height of Navy requirements—with continuous capital investments. Most recently, the foundry installed new ovens and quench tanks, said Jones. She added that they’ve been using additive manufacturing techniques for mold-making, too, and have entered into some metal printing, as well. 

“AM has changed how we do our patterns, and molds for the pours, so that’s a significant jump in technology integration into our day-to-day operations,” Jones said. “In terms of other specific operations, there’s better capability of oven technology and the quench tank is definitely much more modernized because of the technology that comes out with each one of those things. We look to invest in those technologies that will provide better operational capabilities for us and to be more efficient at what we do. 

New Navy ship designs and requirements comprised in “Tech Pub 300,” (NAVSEA Technical Publication T9074-BD-GIB-010/0300 Rev 2.) are driving NNS’s acceleration in all types of upgrades, and Jones’s team works closely with their customer, applying a mindset that relentlessly seeks improvement. 

“It’s not so much one challenge as much as a ‘keeping up,’” said Jones. “We want to continue to make the right investments, we want to continue to keep our employees trained top notch, we want to continue to collaborate and work with engineering and even upstream with the Navy side of engineering to make sure that we are meeting all their requirements and foresee requirements in the future so we can collaborate about what’s coming. 

“The very first part of shipbuilding starts with castings,” she continued, “and [we’re] staying advanced enough so that we have influence and a voice on the design and how we do the pours. That’s something we’ve always done and will continue all-in to ensure success, not just for the company, but really for the U.S. Navy as a whole.”

Processes, like equipment, must also progress for utmost efficiency, which is why the NNS foundry adopted a sophisticated barcoding system that touches practically all of the material movement and inventory management across the NNS shipyard. 

But the system transformation of their lifetime is still unfolding.

“Newport News Shipbuilding has been on a digital transformation journey to go into paperless shipbuilding,” said Jones. “And with that, of course, the entire value stream is included. So, for example, the foundry has visual work instructions for the newer class carriers that are part of their processes.”

According to HII, the company’s broad Digital Shipbuilding (iDS) encompasses laser scanning, augmented reality, modeling and simulation, and additive manufacturing to transition from two-dimensional paper-based instructions to digital formats to increase efficiency, safety, and affordability. HII is using iDS for construction of the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 80), which will be the first ship built completely paperless, and the new class of ballistic submarines, the Columbia class.

They Know Their Story

Awareness of their origin and legacy factors strongly into this foundry team’s pride. The NNS story began in 1886. Grover Cleveland was in the White House, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Geronimo surrendered to a U.S. general, and the Coca Cola Co. sold its first bottle of soda pop. But for the transportation, industrial and defense sectors of America, something of great importance was also happening on the Atlantic seaboard of Virginia as Newport News Shipbuilding came into existence.

According to records at, the company was started by Collis P. Huntington as Chesapeake Dry Dock & Construction Company. The first vessel it constructed was a tug boat named Dorothy, which is preserved at NNS today, the site says.

“Incredibly, within 10 years of its foundation it was building battleships for the U.S. Navy,” the website states. “Through two world wars, it established itself as the world’s most capable shipyard, outliving all the other great naval and merchant shipbuilders. It was fully operational at the start of the WWII emergency and expanded its capabilities for the war effort with the aid of $22 million from the Navy ...  It continued as both a naval and merchant shipbuilder and repairer after the war and is today the largest U.S. shipbuilder.”

Homegrown Workforce 

As a maker of vessels that fight and win, NNS carries that attitude into the battle for skilled workers with its own trade program, The Apprentice School, which includes a foundry track ( Remarkably, all new start groups at The Apprentice School each month are full, according to Todd Corillo, HII and NNS media relations manager.

According to a March press release, The Apprentice School accepts over 200 apprentices per year. The school offers four- to eight-year, tuition-free apprenticeships in 19 trades and eight optional advanced programs. Apprentices work a 40-hour week and are paid for all work, including time spent in academic classes. Foundry apprentices are exposed to every facet of the shipyard’s foundry operations including building the mold, pouring the molten metal into the form, and cleaning up the castings with grinders. At the end of their apprenticeship, graduates leave with an associate’s degree in Applied Science Maritime Technology with a specialization in their trade. 

The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding also has athletic programs that include football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, wrestling, and golf, all of which contribute to recruitment efforts that attract candidates from all over the U.S. Also in its favor: As of July 2020, The Apprentice School has been approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to operate as a postsecondary institution.
Enthusiastic outreach to high schoolers in the region is a recruitment staple. As recently as October 29 this year, The Apprentice School held a half-day pre-apprenticeship recruitment event for high school students and will host another in February—the “FORWARD” event (Future Opportunities Reaching the Workforce Apprentice Readiness and Development) featured hands-on demonstrations in the school’s virtual simulation lab, a short tour of The Apprentice School, and a Q&A information session. 

To 2022’s graduates, NNS President Jennifer Boykin said, “Your critical role in the defense of our nation cannot be understated. The Navy depends on us to deliver capable, reliable vessels that help keep our sailors safe. And I’m depending on you to bring your skill, your experience, your knowledge and your heart to every challenge that you face ... Never settle for good enough and always keep learning. If you do this, I know that our nation’s future will be safer and brighter.”

And so the foundry and shipbuilding pride continues.    CS

Click here to view the article in the digital edition of the January/February 2023 Casting Source.