Waterjet Cutting

Simple complexity

By Russ Olexa

August 2009 - Imagine being 1,000 ft. under the ocean with only a 31/4-in.-thick acrylic-plastic sphere between you and about a quarter ton pressure of crushing water. Now envision that you’re doing it for fun.

If you have the cash, U.S. Submarines Inc., Vero Beach, Fla., can make your dreams of undersea exploration come true with one of the company’s Triton submersibles. Up to 230 ft. long, they sport luxurious interiors that rival the most opulent yachts.

Bruce Jones is the president of U.S. Submarines and Triton Submarines LLC, which is a subsidiary of U.S. Submarines that was formed to do design engineering for the Triton series of deep submersibles. Triton Submarines offers four models: two- and three-passenger vessels that can dive to 1,000 ft., and two- and three-passenger vessels that dive to 3,300 ft.

"U.S. Submarines was formed in 1993 to design and engineer various civil submarines," says Jones. "We also do special projects and consulting work for the marine industry and even build underwater structures such as living quarters."

Triton submersibles were developed because Jones saw a need back in 1999: Yacht owners were looking for a small sub.

"Most of the conventional submersibles that were available had some significant drawbacks to their use on a yacht," says Jones. "Most small submersibles used commercially are designed with a minimum amount of freeboard. When they’re placed in the water, their stability isn’t usually all that great. A civil or commercial submarine places the passengers in the submarine while it’s on the deck and then launches it and retrieves it with a complex system that isn’t practical for a yacht, nor does it fit in with the aesthetics.

"We wanted to design a submersible with excellent surface stability and lots of freeboard to be safe for people to get in and out of it when it’s in the water," Jones continues. "Also, it had to be moved by a small crane on the yacht. We designed the Triton series around this requirement. We wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing, use an acrylic-pressure sphere for unsurpassed viewing, and we wanted to design one that was comfortable for two or three people. Other small submersibles you have to lie down in to operate. Viewing anything this way gets uncomfortable."{

U.S. Submarines also builds one-of-a-kind diesel/electric submarines. The difference between a submarine and submersible is that a submarine can regenerate its own power, and a submersible can’t.

"We’ll build a diesel electric submarine from 30 ft. to 230 ft. long," says Jones.

Constructing a sub
Triton submersibles use a variety of materials for their construction and these are primarily cut with a waterjet.

The acrylic sphere that houses the driver and passenger in 1,000 ft. of water is about 31/4 in. thick with a 57-in. ID. For the 3,300-ft. diving Triton, the sphere is about 5.5 in. thick. It’s cast in two halves and glued together.

"We use aluminum, stainless steel, steel and bronze," says Patrick Lahey, vice president of operations at U.S. Submarines. "The Triton series uses steel for the main structural framework and battery pods and stainless steel for anything that’s exposed to salt water. Some parts are made from aluminum, such as the main hatch, because of the weight factor.

"All of our welders have to be certified by the American Bureau of Shipping," he says. "All the welds are checked for quality using both X-ray and ultrasound. Everything has to be tested to 1.25 times the actual depth that the submarine or submersible can achieve, and this is done at various testing facilities."

With U.S. Submarines primarily doing the assembly and training for its subs, some of the actual part manufacturing is left to Atlantic Precision, Port St. Lucie, Fla., a company that specializes in prototype and custom one-off machined parts for the aircraft and aerospace industries.

As with aircraft parts, all raw materials and fabricated components must be fully traceable. Atlantic Precision does this with all the aircraft parts it produces, so the company was a natural fit to produce parts for U.S. Submarines, says Lahey.

"Parts that we produce for the Triton submersibles include ballast tanks; all of the sub’s framework, instrument panels, seats and brackets; sheet metal parts that hold the controls; and almost everything that the vessel has for interior and exterior parts that are made of metal," says Tim Ritter, president of Atlantic Precision.

A waterjet is used to cut the various components of the Triton submersibles, and Ritter says he prefers waterjets because "a waterjet is cheaper than a laser to cut most materials. The product coming off the machine is finished with no deburring or edge prep needed. Now, waterjets are accurate enough for the parts that we produce, and they can cut anything, including plastics, metal, wood and glass. They offer a greater flexibility than a laser or plasma system, and there’s no part distortion from heat."

Regulating a sub
Construction of submarines and submersibles is as highly regulated as aircraft, says Lahey. "Submarines and submersibles have specific-use classes and are recognized by certification industries from around the world. A lot of people have built homemade submarines and submersibles, but ours are different. These are built with a strict set of guidelines that were drafted from the early days of commercial submarines and ones used in war. The biggest certifier for manned submersibles is the American Bureau of Shipping, and they have an extensive list of rules that govern the design, construction and, ultimately, their operation.

"The rules are complex," he continues. "If I’m asked by an attending surveyor to provide a material’s certification for the steel used to make the ballast tanks or battery pods, I have to produce it. I have to tell the surveyor the name of the steel mill it came from, when it was made, and all the metal’s physical and mechanical properties."

Vessel regulation isn’t handled by any one organization but rather an array of internationally recognized certification agencies, each with its own rules governing the safe operation and maintenance of these craft, notes Lahey. "Finite element analysis is used extensively for the design of our vessels," he says. "The paperwork associated with building a submarine or submersible, particularly a first one in a series, is voluminous. The running joke is that when the paperwork weighs as much as the vessel, we’re done.

"This helps us prove to our customers that the submersible is safe," he continues. "We have an actual stamp of approval from the certification agency. This is the only way our customers can get insurance for it."

Lahey says the Triton submersible had to be simple to operate, easy to maintain, reliable, safe and owner-maintainable (if desired). It also had to meet certain physical requirements, such as being able to fit on a yacht. It had to be comfortable for the passengers for long periods of time. But it couldn’t be so complex and intimidating that someone couldn’t be trained to safely operate it. An operator had to be trained fairly quickly on all the systems of the vessel, including navigation, life support and ability to move it through the water.

"Our smallest Triton for two passengers is about 10.5 ft. long, weighs 6,600 lbs. and is small enough to fit on most 50-m yachts," says Lahey. "Manned submersibles have a nearly perfect safety record. In order to obtain certification, all the critical systems must have backup systems for safety."

For instance, submersibles have three independent ways of deballasting, which means if any one system or two systems should fail, the sub can still surface. These systems, along with extensive training for the operators, offer peace of mind to explore the ocean’s depths. FFJ


  • Atlantic Precision Inc.
    Port St. Lucie, Fla.
    phone: 772/878-7583
    fax: 772/878-6453

  • Triton Submarines LLC/U.S. Submarines Inc.
    Vero Beach, Fla.
    phone: 772/770-1995
    fax: 772/770-1395

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