Exploring Energetic Coating Removal Technology

Published December 7, 2021

Newport News Shipbuilding strives each day to push the boundaries of what is possible. This resolve is one of the guiding principles of Technology Development (E32), where employee-driven innovation is nurtured to reality.

Painted steel is everywhere at NNS. Primed during the construction process for protection from the elements, at some point, the paint must go if that steel is to be welded. Common methods for paint removal like grinding or the use of a needle gun are labor intensive and can be dangerous.

Automating paint removal would be a “game changer.” Lasers can help with the process; they’re highly controllable and can remove paint in a non-contact fashion. However, manually controlled processes are inherently not perfectly repeatable. NNS is working to devise fixed-position laser systems along with the parameters to remove paint while not damaging steel. The devices being considered would be installed on existing automated or semi-automated processes at NNS, such as within the Steel Fabrication Assembly campus, where repeatable operations like panel lines operate.

While the NNS laser paint removal system will be useful for removing paint as steel moves through a repeatable process, it is not a replacement for the grinders and needle guns used when paint removal for welding is performed everywhere else in the shipyard. This is where a novel concept was envisioned by X11 fitters and E32 to use the optimal laser parameters being determined for the fixed systems, and translate them onto another highly controllable, yet mobile, device – a welding tractor.

With safety and process stability in mind, E32 and X11 got to work.

With the concept established, E32 facilitated, directed and funded prototype hardware design using an external research partner. Components of the prototype system are being assembled into a working unit at NNS. A commercial, off-the-shelf welding tractor is being integrated with a 100-watt pulsed fiber laser, whose laser optic is interchangeable with a welding torch. The two hardware items will work together to carefully remove paint in a controllable and repeatable fashion. The project is moving through the prototype assembly stage, with a working research and development system expected in early 2022.

“Fully realized, this project would mean hours saved, health hazards lessened and a much more practical way to go about paint removal for our trade. It would benefit our safety and productivity on every program we are on. The future of laser ablation is very exciting for us,” said X11 Foreman Jonathan Morris.

Employees who have ideas that can improve shipbuilding or ship repair processes are urged to load their ideas into the Innovation Station. NNS Technology Development is here to help bring these ideas to life.