How Does the Navy Design the Nuclear Supercarrier of the Future?

With the help of virtual-reality simulations, of course. One journalist gets a sneak peek.



Designing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is a mind-bendingly complex process, what with all the details it involves, not to mention all of the superhuman engineering challenges. That’s why the Navy takes on the task only once in a generation: The last time a fundamentally new carrier design was created was 1964. But the newest supercarriers, the Ford Class, is being constructed right now, with completion slated for 2015. Crackerjack defense writer Noah Schachtman–best known for his blog, Danger Room–got a peek at the process, and just published his experiences in the new issue of Popular Mechanics. No surprise: Much of the design work is virtual, and accomplished through 3-D models and computer simulations:

The last time American engineers designed a carrier from scratch, in the 1960s, they drew the ship in ink and built full-scale wooden models to prove their designs. Then, the construction-yard workers had to figure out how to put the ship together. Things work a little differently in 2009. Now, engineers and foremen can wander around a mockup of the ship without wearing helmets or boots. All they have to do is slip on chunky black glasses, stare at a screen and step inside the ship’s CAD plan.

Sam Vreeland, the Ford’s jowly, red-cheeked construction director, hands me a pair of the bulky glasses. We’re in a black-walled room inside a nondescript building at the shipyard. On an 8-foot-tall screen in the center of the room, engineers from around the country meet–without leaving their offices–to perfect blueprints in virtual-reality simulators. In front of me is a virtual 3D model of every element of the ship’s jet-fuel room, from pumps and pipes to shims and studs securing bulkheads. In the lower decks, engineers have assigned a part number and a supplier to every one of these digital pieces. “We got this technology because we can walk anybody through, including the Navy,” Vreeland says. “They can see it more clearly than with a mockup.”…

…Everything on the Ford is subject to simulation testing, from the views of the flight deck from the bridge to damage control in the engine rooms. According to manager of engineering David Rockey, there are even messing models. “That’s where we see how long it takes crew members to get a hot lunch and come back [to their stations],” Rockey says. “It’s like SimCity for carriers.” But this game has a serious purpose: “Before we cut steel and pay the bill, we want to see what we’re going to get for our efforts.

Meanwhile, the flight deck itself has been redesigned to accommodate a new model for servicing and launching aircraft, based on NASCAR pitstop procedures. Fascinating stuff. Read the entire story here.


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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.