Austal unveils new steel shipbuilding line

Robotics, technology key to $100 million waterfront production line

Austal officials show off the new steel shipbuilding line. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

Austal USA unveiled its new steel shipbuilding line today. The $100 million facility, boosted by $50 million in federal support, will allow Austal to build both aluminum and steel ships.

The firm provides ships primarily to the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and already has a contract for its first steel vessel.

Like an oversized version of the automobile assembly lines Alabamians are used to, this plant features automation, robotics and high-tech elements.

Although the enormous machines can be operated by one or two people at the controls, Austal officials say they expect the overall number of employees to increase rather than decrease – and that the jobs will be more challenging. Moreover, focusing more attention on technology will allow the company to perform data analytics on its processes and help improve each step.

Steel — which is to be purchased first from Mobile-based SSAB Americas — enters the plant in one-inch or smaller slabs, is automatically welded into place and exits the line in units that can range from 150 to 200 metric tons, said manufacturing director Neil Seddon.

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Equipment for the 117,000-square-foot plant came from the Netherlands, Germany and Italy — all arriving on time despite the challenges of COVID and supply chain tangles.

Like the aluminum ship line next door, the steel line will be based on modular manufacturing techniques, which Austal USA President Rusty Murdaugh calls “the key to success.”

As the Mobile manufacturer did before today, Austal’s Australian parent company builds exclusively aluminum ships, but they are carefully watching the transition process in Alabama, Murdaugh said.

Dignitaries at the Austal unveiling with a picture of the 117,000-square-foot building projected behind them. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

During the unveiling ceremony, company officials recounted the history from the initial site preparation in 1999 until today, when Austal ranks as the fifth largest shipbuilder in America.

It has delivered 27 ships to the U.S. Navy in the past 10 years, an unmatched record, company officials said.

Calling up the specter of events in the Ukraine and the South China Sea, Rear Adm. Thomas Anderson complimented the firm on its new facility and said, “In this environment, we are relying on Austal to make the most of this facility; to do what Austal does in learning, adjusting and improving with a sense of urgency.”

Gov. Kay Ivey echoed his thoughts, praising the company’s workforce and saying that “this shipyard continues to be the most modern of its kind in the nation.

“To the men and women who come to work at Austal each day, thank you, thank you,” she added. “Your work is ensuring that American is on top.”

Gray Construction built the new facility.

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