ROME — The building of new U.S. Navy frigates in Wisconsin is about to get more efficient thanks to the introduction of techniques used to make luxury cruise ships in Italy.
The Italian company Fincantieri, which is constructing Constellation-class guided-missile frigates at its stateside Marinette Marine yard, plans to implement processes it perfected building cruise ships on tight deadlines at its Monfalcone yard in Italy, CEO Pierroberto Folgiero told Defense News.
“We aim to use more preconstruction on land at Marinette, which means building modules before adding them to the vessel, meaning less work in the dock and more work on land — which is much more efficient,” he said. “It is the model we use for our cruise ships at Monfalcone and other merchant shipyards in the group. We are transferring the technique to our naval yards in Italy, and we have carried out a study to make changes at Marinette. We have sent a team and plan to put the changes into effect in 2023.”
Eight months after he was named head of the state-controlled company, Folgiero, 50, is focusing on the 2020 contract from the U.S. Navy for three frigates — of an expected total order of 20 — based on the FREMM vessels Fincantieri built for the Italian Navy. Work is already underway at Marinette, which Fincantieri purchased in 2008 and where it already builds Freedom-class littoral combat ships for the U.S. Navy.
“We’ve invested more than $300 million in our Wisconsin shipyards to meet the Navy’s requirement of two frigates a year, and it’s important we continue to improve productivity,” Folgiero said, adding that the move to producing more modules on land will require additional covered areas and cranes to transfer the modules.
The challenge is finding the employees to make it happen, he noted. “The key point is the availability of skilled staff, which is the bottleneck to maximize production,” he said.
As production accelerates, Fincantieri has said, the company will need 1,000 extra staff members at Marinette and the two other yards it controls in Wisconsin. At Marinette alone, the firm aims to increase the head count by 700 in the next three to four years, from 1,900 to 2,600.
Fincantieri’s unusual blend of work on defense platforms — which accounted for 29% of its 2021 — and cruise ships has produced synergies before, with lessons on comfortable quarters learned in cruise ship construction passed onto military vessels; conversely, cruise ships have benefited from naval tricks to make them more silent.
The firm also claims it applies the same punctuality to defense orders as it does in the deadline-conscious cruise sector.
“The operational discipline we have in the cruise sector we apply to naval construction, and we have a control of costs and times, which clients greatly appreciate: for example, Qatar, to which we have just delivered vessels on budget and on time despite COVID-19 disruptions,” Folgiero said.
The CEO was named to take over from retiring head Giuseppe Bono in April after nine years running Italian engineering firm Maire Tecnimont Group, which is involved in building petrochemical plants. When it came to entering a new field, Folgiero said he had no qualms.
“This business is about engineering, procurement and construction. We manage clients and contracts and sell, and that is what I have done for many years,” he said. “I don’t believe you must only be an expert on the product. Companies can suffer by obsessing about the product. What you must know is how to improve processes, achieve operational excellence and perfect the engineering. It’s about how you buy and build.”
Focus in Europe
Folgiero also told Defense News that he is plotting tighter cooperation with another Italian defense giant. Leonardo, which builds systems for Fincantieri vessels destined for the Italian Navy, is already partnered with Fincantieri in the joint venture Orizzonte Sistemi Navali.
“We want to increase cooperation with Leonardo and reinforce Orizzonte Sistemi Navali to increase the integration between platforms and combat systems. We also want to increase joint marketing,” he said.
He also said Naviris, Fincantieri’s joint venture with France’s Naval Group, is the “perfect” springboard to usher in a more integrated European defense industry. “Naviris can help Europe align requirements and make industry cooperate. We will bring in more industries as more common multinational requirements appear.”
“This is, above all, geopolitical and depends on alliances between states. I don’t believe managers should be in charge of the industrial policy choices of a nation. The nation should do that while managers should take care of their companies along the lines defined by nations,” he said.
One possible catalyst for European integration will be the sale of Oto Melara, the Leonardo-owned firm making turrets for tanks and naval cannons. French and German buyers have expressed interest since Leonardo hinted it was on the block, with Fincantieri a rumored Italian investor.
But Folgiero appeared to pour cold water on the idea.
“I am extremely prudent about moving outside our core business. A firm should focus on its core business, so this is not the first idea that comes to mind,” he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.