For the first time in nearly half a century, the United States is designing a large aircraft carrier from scratch (the USS Ford, CVN-79). Speeding up the process are new tools, particularly computer aided design (CAD). This has been around for decades, but much more powerful computers and much better video graphics, have made it possible to create a 3-D version of the ship with the CAD software, and move virtual people through the 3-D model, and operate the equipment, to make sure everything fit together and was accessible. The CAD software has another big advantage, in that the data files can be emailed to the manufacturers, who use those files in their computer driven fabrication equipment, that bends and machines the metal to the exact specifications.
The existing CVNs, the Nimitz class, are at best half-sisters to each other, since the design gets updated with each new ship. With the Gerald Ford (CVN-78), the likelihood is that the mods to each subsequent ship will be even more noticeable. The later Nimitz updates also used the 3-D CAD technology for the upgrades, so there was already lots of experience with this technology as applied to designing large ships.
The Ford was supposed to be the first of a radically new, post-Nimitz class of carriers. But that idea was scrapped because the new technology was not quite there yet. So the Ford will be, like all her predecessors, an evolution on the original USS Nimitz (CVN-68), which entered service in 1975, and the most recent one CVN-77, which entered service this year. But in the many details of a new ship designed from scratch, the Ford will be quite different.
The Ford won't enter service until 2015, and it will have a new hull, a new look topside, and lots of new tech inside. After that, additional Ford class ships are expected to arrive a 5-10 year intervals, and, like the Nimitzs, each will have lots of modifications. In fact, because the mods have been arriving in larger quantities of late, and involving greater changes to the basic ship design. All of this will be largely the result of powerful 3-D CAD software.