2013 Annual Report

Letter from Laurence P. Madin, Director of Research

We often say that one of WHOI's special qualities is our close integration of science and engineering. Science questions stimulate innovative engineering solutions for finding the answers, and new technical capabilities can open unexpected research opportunities. This world-class synergy pervades our research activity and has created a long history of innovation and leadership in understanding the ocean. There are examples all around us in the ocean science world—instruments, moorings, underwater robots and our iconic submersible Alvin—and we believe that WHOI's future will depend on this successful combination of the scientist and the engineer. But how, exactly, do the ideas become reality?

There is another critical link in the chain connecting science needs to technological innovations and eventually new discoveries—the actual fabrication of the novel and complex instruments, vehicles, and other devices that do the work. Great concepts and clever designs don't actually do anything in the ocean until they take shape in real metal, glass and plastic. That is the task of the skilled machinists, mechanics, welders, electricians, carpenters and painters that work in the WHOI shops. Just like WHOI scientists and engineers, these fabricators are a world-class group— dedicated to excellence, justly proud of their skills, and the envy of most other institutions. During 2013 our shop staff completed many significant projects. Certainly the most consuming and complex was the overhaul and upgrade of Alvin, completed in May.

By far the biggest renovation of the iconic submersible in its 50-year history, the effort required meticulous integration of many new components, including the new and larger personnel sphere, into a modified titanium frame, and being sure everything fit and worked. There is no room for ”approximately” in a sub carrying people to the bottom of the ocean. The work by our machinists and mechanics to put Alvin together for another 50 years has been highlighted in a recent issue of Oceanus magazine, but that wasn’t the only one major project to come out of the WHOI shops in 2013. Other underwater vehicles took shape. Two of the new Nereid-class vehicles, built on concepts pioneered with the Nereus program, were completed or begun.

The Nereid-UI (for "Under-Ice") is intended for both autonomous and remote-controlled operation under ice sheets, and will see its first field trials in 2014. Its cousin, Nereid-HT (for “Hybrid Tethering”) got underway in 2013, for completion in 2014. Another big customer in 2013 was the Ocean Observatory Initiative (OOI) program. WHOI is the main contractor for the Coastal and Global Scale Nodes (CGSN), which are made up of moored instruments and buoys combined with mobile AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) and gliders. With responsibility for the fabrication of the many parts needed for these observing arrays, the WHOI shops built more than15 buoys and instrument systems for deployment in 2014 and 2015.

The aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, glass and plastic components of these moorings all require special skills to fabricate with the quality and integrity needed for long-term operation in the ocean. This critical work can't be simply outsourced to commercial shops that lack the experience that our own shop people have. Alvin, the Nereids, OOI moorings were some of the big jobs, but altogether the WHOI shops set a record in 2013 by producing more than 100,000 parts for these and other projects—each one of them the product of skilled eyes and hands.

And the shops don’t only produce things that go into the ocean. Our buildings, labs and offices are maintained, modified and upgraded to meet changing needs of science by the carpenters, electricians, and painters, craftsmen with long careers here who know the buildings and the people that work in them. In 2013, 10 renovation projects were done on scientists’ labs, the dive operations center, and other buildings and spaces at WHOI.

There are many elements that make a world-leading ocean research organization, but where the rubber hits the road—or the titanium hits the water—we rely on the 'blue-collar' guys in our shops. They make our stuff, and it works. 

Last updated: July 23, 2014