MARINETTE, Wis. — A striking view awaited motorists this summer as they drove over the Menominee River — three littoral combat ships (LCS), all grouped together, pointed right at the Route 41 bridge between Wisconsin and Michigan. The Milwaukee (LCS 5) and Detroit (LCS 7) were already in the water, while the Little Rock (LCS 9) sat on shore poised for launch.

The group was shuffled a bit on June 18 when the Little Rock was christened and launched sideways into the river, where the three will sit alongside at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard until the Milwaukee sails away in the fall. But in only a few months the Sioux City (LCS 11) will be rolled out of an assembly building and placed in the launch position, to be followed later by the Wichita (LCS 13).

Those five ships and parts of two more are visible around this small but bustling shipyard, where about 1,500 employees and around 500 contractors daily come through the gates to produce the Freedom-class Lockheed Martin monohull variant of the US Navy's LCS. Along with the Independence-class produced by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, the LCS program is in full-rate production, and each variant is — at long last — hitting its manufacturing stride.

Not only has the LCS building program broken through from the fits and starts of its early years, but the shipyard itself has undergone a remarkable transition. When construction of the Freedom (LCS 1) began in February 2005, Marinette Marine was part of the privately held Manitowoc Marine Group. With well under a thousand employees, the yard's facilities were outdated and inadequate. Much of the shipyard was unpaved, and without enough storage space, ship components were stored in the open — buried in snow in winter, sitting in muck during summer rains.

"All steel stood outside in the dirt," said Chuck Goddard, a retired rear admiral who served as Program Executive Office Ships, the US Navy's top shipbuilder.

"We were spending more money on cleaning than we would've had to to pave the yard," said Joe North, Lockheed's vice president of Littoral Ships and Systems.

The yard's erection building wasn't big enough to contain the entire LCS hull.

"When we built LCS 1 and 3, the bows stuck outside" said Goddard, now a senior vice president with the shipbuilder.

The blast and paint shop was too small for big component modules. To paint, "we needed three days of good predictable weather," he said, and environmental controls were inadequate. Work would often come to a stop because of rain or snow, heat or cold.

Then in January 2009, the yard was acquired by Italian shipbuilding giant Fincantieri, the world's fourth-largest shipbuilder, in an all-cash deal for about $120 million deal, with Lockheed Martin as a minority owner. Thus began a major transformation of the yard into a modern manufacturing facility, staked by an initial $73.5 million capital expansion investment from Fincantieri.

One of the first steps, Goddard said, was to map out a new workflow plan. The old yard had no particular flow — ship components might move back and forth several times before being installed, up to eight miles of movement inside the shipyard. The backtracking now has largely been eliminated by a new layout and new and expanded facilities. The erection building was virtually doubled in size, and a new blast and paint facility was designed, with input from General Dynamics' National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. in San Diego, allowing work to continue regardless of the weather.

A new steel panel line building was built for the initial process of cutting and bending flat steel plates to the forms needed for a ship, along with a new steel plate stockyard and storage facility to keep steel out of the weather. The state of Wisconsin kicked in to restore and improve a nearly unusable rail spur to allow train cars to come right up to the building to unload.

A new outfitting building was built, where modules are fitted out with piping, electrical wiring and numerous components, and finally a new grand module building went up, big enough to put together the big pieces of a ship. Amidst the construction, dirt disappeared under asphalt paving. Fincantieri expanded its investment to over $100 million.

And while the yard physically transformed, LCS construction was ramping up. The Milwaukee and Detroit were built even as the shipyard around them was reconstructed — and the workforce nearly doubled, from about 800 permanent employees to around 1,500.

"I called them my stumbling blocks," North said of the two ships. "[LCS] 5Five and 7 were straddled half in the old process, half in the new, 7 more than 5. Five almost went through the whole yard and it shows."

Little Rock represents the first ship built since the shipyard was rebuilt.

"Nine is the first one that went through the entire new yard and that shows with its performance," North said July 17, a day before the LCS was launched. The Little Rock "had much better cost performance, especially over 5 and 7."

On the earlier ships, he noted, "I pushed a lot of work out onto the waterfront, which makes our costs go up," reflecting the absence of properly covered building areas. Now, he added, "Little Rock is in very good shape," 84 percent complete at launch. "She'll be in trials coming out of the ice period next year in April and May, and will be delivered in mid-summer."

Both Milwaukee and Detroit are late in delivery due to the yard construction, but the rate of construction is improving. North is aiming for a building time averaging 36 months across the current 10-ship construction contract, which starts with the Milwaukee and ends with LCS 23. Milwaukee will come in close to 42 months, but Detroit, due for completion in 2016, looks like 37 or 38 months, North said.

When the next contracts are bid, North said, the shipyard "thinks they can get down to 32 with the new processes coming in. That is a lot of time. It's going to take a lot of hours, but there are ways to do that."

The Milwaukee had been aiming for a delivery date in August, but that's been delayed at least a month by a shipyard accident that took place in late May in the midst of builder's sea trials — a series of underway periods where the shipyard checks out the ship before the Navy runs acceptance trials. While most shipyards run sea trials over a three- or four-day period underway, with the ship packed with shipyard workers and contractors, Marinette prefers to hold the trials over about 10 days, coming back into port most evenings and embarking only those needed for the day's events.

The accident took place late one evening as the ship was pierside in Marinette, trying to get ready to head back out in the morning.

"We were basically looking at cleaning up a lube oil system," North explained. "We had an inadvertent start of the turbine that went to the gear that spun the starboard shaft in the machinery plant between the splitter gear and the forward gear." The shaft should have been decoupled so the turbine wouldn't turn it. "So with no lube oil there, that is not the way you want to run it. It was a very, very short time frame, less than a minute."

But it was long enough to damage the splitter gear, shaft bearings and other parts.

"We were actually pretty fortunate there wasn't a whole lot of damage in there," North said. "There were a lot of parts that might have been scored or something or marked. We had them remachined, brought back in, put the gear back together."

Repairs have been completed, he said, and crews were putting all the pieces back together to resume sea trials.

While the investigation is still being completed, North acknowledged the accident was the shipyard's fault.

"It was a procedural error, human error," he said.

The Navy is right in the middle of overseeing the repair work.

"We are pleased on the Navy side with the work we are seeing and the progress that is being made," Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, program executive officer for the LCS, said July 17 at the shipyard. "I actually went down into the space and things are being put back together again. The shipyard is doing the welding and the testing required to put the ship back to where it was prior to the casualty."

And while the accident has cost about a month in the testing schedule, North is optimistic the ship will be delivered to the Navy and leave Marinette in time to make it out of the Great Lakes before the ice season begins, when the lakes become unnavigable and close down.

"We will go out and finish the tests that are still incomplete from those trials, and hopefully a short period right after that go out on acceptance trials and we will still deliver in the fall," North said, meaning the ship will make its commissioning ceremony scheduled for November in the city of Milwaukee.

The accident, North added, will not cost the Navy any money.

"The cost is on us," he said.