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Aluminum and Shipbuilding


The U.S. Navy has been using aluminum to help build ships for more than 100 years and continues
to rely on aluminum almost exclusively for the fastest and lightest ships in its fleet, including
Littoral Combat Ships, Joint High Speed Vessels and future Ship to Shore connectors. All of these
ships use aluminum alloys as a primary structural material.

Aluminum has been widely used by most marine countries for “… the U.S. Navy
commercial and naval vessels since the mid 1950s, and should consider
numerous current U.S. Navy ship classes use substantial aluminum ships
amounts of aluminum. However, long-standing misperceptions
for a broader range
about aluminum ships continue to persist, even though
continuous progress and technology advancements have of roles, not just
mitigated many of the past problems with aluminum. high speed
This paper explains how new technologies and advancements
are making aluminum an increasing popular choice for military “The Benefits and Cost Impact of
ships of all sizes and discusses how historical concerns about Aluminum Naval Ship Structure”

aluminum ships are being resolved. By Lamb, Beavers, Ingram

and Schmieman
As a strong and lightweight material, aluminum has proven to add value to naval ships. Aluminum
ships can go faster speeds, carry bigger payloads and travel longer ranges while enjoying
increased stability and better fuel efficiency.


Shipyards & Repair Facilities: There are more than 430 shipyards around the world with the
capability to build and repair aluminum ships, including 44 shipyards and repair facilities in the
United States. The world’s leading shipyards and naval ship builders fabricate with both steel and
aluminum and have specialized expertise with aluminum. Many of the world’s largest shipbuilders
that are historically associated with steel shipbuilding also work with aluminum, including
Newport News, Ingalls Shipbuilding, Bath Iron Works and BAE Systems Ship Repair. Concerns
about not being able to find an experienced shipbuilder or repair facility are not valid.

Aluminum Welders: There are more skilled aluminum welders than there are active members of
the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard combined. That means there are nearly 50,000 skilled
aluminum welders in the United States and more than 300,000 aluminum welders worldwide.

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Some critics say it is too difficult for steel welders to learn how to work with aluminum. But Tony
Anderson – a technical training manager for ESAB North America, one of the largest welding
companies in the world – says that is not the case.

“Aluminum is not difficult to weld when compared to steel, it

is just different,” Anderson said. “With the introduction of
the Metal Inert Gas Welding processes in the 1940s,
aluminum became an extremely easy material to join by arc “Aluminum is not difficult
welding. It is my experience that the average welder who is to weld when compared to
proficient in the welding of steel can be very easily trained to
steel, it is just
weld aluminum by a competent welding instructor.”
different…the average
In addition, aluminum welding has benefitted from
welder who is proficient in
significant advancements – including new equipment that the welding of steel can be
uses less heat and automated processes such as Friction Stir very easily trained to weld
Welding (FSW) – that allow welds to be made easier and aluminum…”
more precisely than ever before. Alcoa is developing a
portable FSW machine that can be operated at shipyards or
even onboard the ship.


Corrosion Issues: Aluminum performs better in marine environments than steel and is easy to
protect from corrosion. While steel rusts quickly in saltwater, aluminum has excellent corrosion
resistance in marine environments for both fresh water and saltwater. Corrosion issues that occur
when aluminum comes in direct contact with steel can be easily prevented by using a non-
conductive barrier to isolate the steel from the aluminum.

One of the advantages of aluminum ships is that only the underside of the ship needs painting.
Unlike steel, the inside of the structure can be left unpainted. It will react with air to form
aluminum oxide—a hard, protective coating that protects the underlying aluminum. With the
thousands of naval craft in service around the world, significant corrosion problems are the
exception not the rule.

Burning & Fire Retardance: Some critics believe that aluminum will burn, thereby making it a
less desirable material for military ships. But aluminum as used in marine structural applications
does not burn and is not toxic. According to a Department of Navy report, media-reports of
aluminum ship damage “in every case was caused by either fuel fires or massive explosions, and in
some instances included ships with steel superstructures improperly reported as aluminum.”1

1Department of the Navy Report on Aluminum Ship Structures to the House Appropriations Committee --
Defense, 1996

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Both steel and aluminum ships require fire insulation. Because aluminum has a lower melting
temperature than steel, more areas require fire insulation versus a comparable steel design. Even
with passive fire protection, aluminum still has better specific strength than steel. And because
aluminum is more ductile than steel, aluminum armor alloys offer excellent protection from
projectile fragments.

Aluminum is a tough material that has proven to hold up well in naval ships. When the Japanese
Coast Guard retired the Arakaze patrol ship 1981, it took samples from various parts of the ship to
test for fatigue and corrosion. The aluminum was still in good condition after 27 years of service.
And that ship was built in 1954, before advancements that further improved the endurance and
survivability of aluminum ships.

Availability of Marine Grade Aluminum: Marine grade aluminum – including sheets, plates,
extrusions, forgings and castings –are readily available from aluminum mills or distributors in the
United States and around the world. The American Bureau of Shipping currently lists 23 approved
suppliers of aluminum flat rolled products and extrusions.

Repair: Aluminum is no more difficult – and no

more expensive – to repair than other shipbuilding
materials. In fact, the repair of aluminum
structures is relatively straightforward. It requires
tools and expertise that are similar, if not the same,
than what is needed to repair ships built with steel.
And repairs are less difficult because aluminum is
easier to cut and weld than steel.

There are very few restrictions on what can be

repaired on an aluminum ship, and there are Airman Shawn Kerr uses a turret punch to put holes into a sheet of
aluminum aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
numerous repair facilities in the United States and
around the world with the expertise to repair aluminum vessels. BAE Systems Ship Repair, for
instance, provides aluminum structural repair at its US facilities. In addition, there are several
programs in place to train workers on how to effectively repair aluminum naval structures.

Cost: The acquisition costs of aluminum ships are competitive with steel ships. The material costs
of building a ship are only 1-2% of the total cost of the ship. Major costs are associated with the
manufacturing of the ship. Today’s advancements in manufacturing with aluminum, are offering
significant cost savings, and making aluminum ships in parity with steel ships. Shipbuilders such
as Austal are implementing additional improvements in the production of aluminum ships –
involving router cutting, work kitting, complex extrusions and welding – that will significantly
improve productivity and reduce costs in the future because labor is the highest cost in building a

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ship with aluminum. Austal USA and Marinette shipbuilders are both undertaking the use of
friction stir welding panels to reduce structured manufacturing costs.

Aluminum ships have a clear advantage over steel ships in total ownership costs. That’s because
aluminum ships are lighter and use less fuel than steel ships. Aluminum ships also do not incur
lifecycle maintenance costs associated with painting, and because they are generally smaller, they
require less manning. And when an aluminum vessel reaches the end of its life span, it continues to
provide tremendous value as a result of its high recycling value.

Aluminum Solutions Provide Benefits to Naval Applications

While there may have been a time when legitimate concerns existed
about the use of aluminum in naval ships, those concerns have largely
been eliminated through technology advancements. Aluminum has
proven itself as a lightweight, durable and affordable material that allows
naval ships to travel faster and farther.

A research paper (“The Benefits and Cost Impact of Aluminum Naval

Ship Structure,” by Lamb, Beavers, Ingram and Schmieman) explains why
aluminum ships are experiencing resurgence: “Lessons learned from the
past and advancements in technology are helping to overcome many of
the past problems with aluminum ships. The recent growing
investments in aluminum related research and development by the U.S.
Navy, shipyards, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), and materials
suppliers such as Alcoa and other related organizations will serve to
provide further cost and performance improvements.”

Aluminum is a proven structural material for marine applications. The attributes of aluminum can
help the Navy achieve its modern fleet needs.

For more information contact:

Dr. Brett Conner, PHD
Project Leader Sea Systems
Alcoa Technical Center
100 Technical Drive
Alcoa Center, PA 15609

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