Bryan P. Van Itallie, Chief Operations Officer, Grace Engineered Products
“Dive! Dive!” Two simple words, punctuated with the familiar “ah-OOG-ah” alarm, were the signal throughout the ship that we were about to embark on for another adventure under the sea. For many sailors, this quickly became routine, but in reality, nothing is routine about submerging an 18,000-ton, 560-ft. vessel like the USS Nevada (SSBN 733) with 165 people on board hundreds of feet below the water’s surface.
One small defect or fault in any of dozens of systems or one valve out of position, and our crew would find itself on a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean. Remarkably, since the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine program began, only two subs have been lost at sea, the last being USS Scorpion (SSN 589) that sank in 1968, more than 50 years ago. This kind of uptime record is worth investigating. Let’s see what a nuclear submarine can teach today’s manufacturers in their quest to avoid costly downtime.
Technology Improves Maintenance Practices…
In the mid-1990s, before my career in manufacturing, I served as an officer onboard the Ohio-class nuclear submarine USS Nevada. In recent years, preventing downtime has spurred an interest in using technology to make better maintenance decisions.
At the heart of this technology are the fundamental principles of predictive maintenance: gathering data, analyzing it, predicting failures and taking proactive measures to prevent downtime. These fundamental principles are unchanged from how we operated the Nevada 20 years ago.
A crew of 165 people living in an underwater vessel for months at a time amplifies the meaning of hazardous conditions. Consider for a moment a transmission bearing failure causing a loss of propulsion, or a reactor coolant pump malfunction causing a meltdown, or a valve failure flooding the vessel with seawater. Clearly, nuclear submarine downtime costs lives, not just profits!
The U.S. Navy never has had a death onboard a U.S. submarine because of a radiation accident. With all the complexities of multiple systems crammed into a tiny space, operating in harsh environments, how have we maintained such an amazing safety record?
…and Safety Records
The two submarine tragedies in the 1960s resulted in the U.S. Navy’s SUBSAFE (Submarine Safety) program, which covers all systems exposed to sea pressure or that are critical to flooding recovery. SUBSAFE and the Navy’s Nuclear Power program are based on a foundation of quality in design, material, fabrication and testing. They span the submarine’s life, from initial design and construction, through ongoing maintenance and updates. Strict adherence to these programs has resulted in safe and successful missions for half a century.