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Building Navy ships faster-and for less- Maine's Bath Iron Works

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If the industry is shipbuilding, and the town contains the Bath Iron Works (BIW), the answer is "yes" -- against all odds. Stuck out on the end of the nation's supply line, facing high costs for energy and steel, BIW also faces a grim international market:

* In Japan, the world's leader in shipbuilding, shipyard capacity has been reduced by 35 percent in the past two years.

* In England, the nationalized British Shipbuilders is slowly sinking under high interest rates and labor costs.

* In the United States, two yards have closed recently and the rest of the industry operates at 55 to 60 percent of capacity.

But here on the Kennebec River, a shipyard with an old-fashioned name and a 97-year history refuses to slow down. BIW, in fact, is expanding -- with a $46. 7 million facility, announced July 16, which will help revitalize the ailing waterfront area in nearby Portland.

The reason: BIW simply can't keep up with the flood of orders for new ships and overhaul work.

Company spokesman Frank Kerr, his hard-hat glinting in the sunshine beneath the massive prow of a soon-to-be- launched guided missile frigate, has no trouble measuring BIW's success:

* Since delivering the prototype of this class of frigate to the US Navy in 1977, the yard has produced six more of the ships. Each was delivered early, and each was below cost. The program is now more than 80 weeks ahead of schedule, and enjoying "cost underruns" -- a rare word in this military circle -- totaling $37 million. (By contrast, another New England shipyard -- the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, Conn. -- has recently made news by coming in more than two years late and $280 million over budget on its Trident submarine program.)

* BIW also succeeds in commercial work. It now has a backlog of more than $ 900 million in orders -- for everything from a 643-foot sugar-barge for the California & Hawaiian Sugar company to bridge girders for highway construction and rock-crushing equipment for the mining industry.

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