Digital disruption at Newport News Shipbuilding

Driving digital disruption at a 130-year-old company isn't easy. When that company is the sole designer, builder, and refueler of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the US Navy, "isn't easy" is an understatement.

Given the extreme sensitivity and longevity of the product lifecycle, managing the business of IT in this environment is a unique challenge. At the 2016 TBM Council Conference, Bharat Amin, VP and CIO of Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, shared his approach to IT innovation in a tightly regulated environment. 

From initial design to sea trial, shipbuilding is a complex process that requires 22,500 employees (~40 million man hours) working 24/7 over a 7-year period to plan, build, and achieve delivery. Nuclear propulsion gives these ships the ability to go for years without refueling, but it also requires a uniquely regulated and risk-averse environment to ensure quality, safety, and security standards are met—all of which complicate the technology environment and challenge the innovation of workflows and business processes.

Amin admits he started in 2014 with little knowledge about shipbuilding. Instead, what he brings to the table is significant experience in business transformation, a passion for digital disruption, and a sense of urgency. He knows NNS can’t afford to sit still.

Noting that 40% of the world's data will be processed in the cloud by 2020, Amin and his team are working to find ways to embrace an “outside-in” approach that can accommodate a new generation of digital natives and leverage new insights from IoT, digital enablement, and more. While cloud is still largely reserved for non-mission-critical data, new security requirements promise to help speed adoption by providing greater protection for classified information. IT is becoming more central to the shipbuilding business, and in Amin’s mind, the timing couldn’t be better to ensure technology is a differentiating force at NNS.

Change catalysts challenge the status quo

Some of the challenges NNS IT faces are familiar to other technology leaders around the globe—shrinking budgets, security and compliance regulations, a growing physical footprint, and a tech-savvy workforce are all catalysts for IT change. Compounding IT innovation is the constant evolution of ship design at NNS. New technologies are key to meeting demand for things like lighter, software-controlled gear, more flexible interior space, bigger flight decks, and more. Today, integrated digital shipbuilding is embracing visual work instructions, augmented reality, visual build sequencing, additive manufacturing, and other applications. There is even talk of a completely digital design process for next-generation ships.

The IT team’s mission is to drive this change and deliver solutions that maximize business value, an effort that requires transparency and about "100,000 tons of diplomacy." By focusing on areas where he knows he can make an immediate impact, Amin is challenging the status quo.

Digital innovation improves shipyard productivity and efficiency

Take restrictive rules around the use of mobile devices. As he describes it, digital innovation was critical to reducing the “nearly four inches of paperwork associated with almost every task, down to hanging a metal bracket” at the shipyard. By addressing a legitimate concern that was hindering mobile environments (built-in cameras), Amin was able to improve productivity without increasing risk. New, extensive training on the impacts and security risks of photography has enabled employees to incorporate mobile devices to improve workplace connectivity and increase efficiency. Success here has extended trust for additional initiatives. Today, many of the organization’s operations are digital, which has saved something in the neighborhood of $5M. 

Leadership support helps everyone drive innovation

Amin’s determination to cultivate digital disruption has meant changing the culture of a company steeped in tradition. "Who can drive this change better than the CIO?" he asks. Using TBM pilot projects and showbacks to get IT leadership, business management, and operations on board, Amin has been able to develop new levels of leadership support, build stronger supplier relationships, and influence new design-thinking and R&D. More importantly, he's been able to demonstrate that pushing accountability for shared services to the business helps everyone drive innovation.

His advice to others in similarly traditional environments? "You have to have courage to go against the grain. Everything has to be dotted and crossed a hundred times in our environment because we're dealing with nuclear. But not everything is nuclear. Start with an out-of-the-box approach, and see how it works."

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