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Hunting Downtime: A Submariner's Perspective on Predictive Maintenance

What can a nuclear submarine teach today's manufacturers in their quest to avoid costly downtime?
By Bryan P. Van Itallie
Jun 12, 2019

"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 another adventure under the sea. For many sailors, this quickly became routine, but in reality, there is nothing routine about submerging an 18,000-ton, 560-foot vessel like the USS Nevada (SSBN 733), containing 165 people, hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the ocean. One small defect or fault in any of dozens of systems, or a single valve out of position, and our crew would find itself on a one-way trip to the ocean floor.

Remarkably, since the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program began, only two subs have been lost at sea, the last being the USS Scorpion (SSN 589), which 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.

In the mid-1990s, I served as an officer onboard the Ohio-class nuclear submarine USS Nevada, before I began my career in manufacturing. In recent years, preventing downtime has created abundant interest in utilizing 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 has never had a death aboard a U.S. submarine due to 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?

The two submarine tragedies in the 1960s resulted in the Navy's SUBSAFE (Submarine Safety) program, which covers all systems exposed to sea pressure or that are critical to flooding recovery. The program was so successful that it was implemented throughout NASA following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. 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 ensured safe and successful missions for half a century.

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