An overview of the Nov. 9 christening for the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
BY ALEXA GORMAN
Waterbury Republican American
THOMASTON, CT — It’s smaller than your average toaster, but a device developed by a Thomaston manufacturer plays a big role on the Navy’s massive new aircraft carrier.
Developed by Ward Leonard Electric Co. Inc., the N302 is an electronic overload relay — a “highly intelligent, sophisticated circuit breaker,” according to William Berger, Ward Leonard’s business development manager.
The N302 is installed in control panels spread throughout the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest class of “supercarrier.” The $12.9 billion Ford, which can hold 4,660 people and more than 75 aircraft, has a 5-acre flight deck and will displace about 100,000 tons when finished. It succeeds the Nimitz class of aircraft carrier, and was christened on Nov. 9.
The ship, designated CVN-78, still operates on nuclear power, but is the first to replace traditional steam-powered systems with those run solely on electricity.
The gray N302 unit is only 6 inches long, 5 inches wide and 3 inches thick, and has just a few flip-switches and one red button. Deceptively simple in appearance, it nonetheless helps crew members monitor the majority of the ship’s inner workings — including pumps, fans, elevators, electronic doors and heaters.
Berger said the company sold about 1,800 of the units to the Navy for use aboard the Ford. The units have been placed inside more than 1,000 control panels, monitoring how well the systems being controlled are operating. The units can be preprogrammed to specific tolerances, and if those tolerances are exceeded the N302 could shut it down or divert power elsewhere.
Placing N3O2 units inside control panels throughout the ship makes it easier for the crew to monitor those panels, Berger said.
“A sailor can sit at the main panel and see the status of all the systems … around the ship,” Berger said. “It’s great to have indicator lights on every panel, but if no one is in that space to see them, how will they know there’s a problem?”
The N302 can also be customized to each ship’s preferences, Berger said, such as when two problems arise at the same time. The N302 will be programmed to signal the more pressing matter first, he said.
The unit uses fiber-optics instead of copper wires, because copper can pick up radio waves, he said.
Rocco Ferraro, Ward Leonard’s vice president of finance, said the technology represents a “significant investment” over a number of years for the company, the Navy, and private investors.
Since the N302 is customizable and its “firmware” — a computer chip that holds all of the N302’s applications and functions — can be upgraded, having a spare will be more expensive than previous technology. However, it costs less to have one spare for each N302 than for 10 different control panels, he said.
Ferraro and Berger declined to say how much revenue the company takes in from the Navy, or how much the N302 cost to develop and install. Ferraro, however, said Ward Leonard’s products are designed with combat ships in mind because the Navy is one of the company’s largest contractors.
“The ships that our stuff is on are more susceptible to attack,” he said. “We don’t want these to fail at all. Our (parts) are robust and hardened for that reason.”
The electromagnetic elements of the Ford have been tested and retested during its development over the past seven years. At Ward Leonard, all of the systems developed — for the Navy or any other client — go through a series of tests that includes a flood tank and beating equipment with a metal sledgehammer to see how much damage it can take before it cannot operate.
“There are some things you need to keep operational,” Ferraro said. Two examples he cited were the ship’s anchor and fire-suppression systems. “Those pumps have to operate,” he said.
The Ford still has about 18 months before it is commissioned and officially joins the Navy’s carrier fleet. With its new technology throughout the ship, the carrier will be able to handle 25 percent more flight missions, require 30 percent less maintenance, and will save an estimated $4 billion over her 50-year lifetime, according to The Ford Class, an information packet developed out of Newport News, Va.
Business Editor Dave Krechevsky contributed to this report.