Difficult manufacturing environment has arsenal anxiously awaiting new fiscal guidance
February 2, 2014
- The Army's Industrial Base workforce attempt to prove its value beyond its core mission.
- The Army's Industrial Base is where each action must improve the value of the organization.
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (Feb. 2, 2014) -- Last month, the President signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that will fund the U.S. government through September. After a three-year pay freeze and six days of furloughs last year, there are many at the arsenal who celebrated this action because in this new appropriation the Army may be able to claw back billions of dollars from targeted cuts due to sequestration.
Before the workforce gets too giddy, however, not all required funding will be obtained by the Army and as a result, major Army staffs, organizations, and installations, such as the Watervliet Arsenal, anxiously await detailed funding guidance.
Col. Lee H. Schiller Jr., the commander of the Watervliet Arsenal, said that within the bill, there are glimmers of hope that more workload may come to the arsenal, but there are also areas of concern.
"The bottom line is that fiscal year 2013 was an extremely difficult manufacturing environment for the arsenal and 2014 remains a big unknown," Schiller said. "Given that we are already four months into this fiscal year, I am cautiously optimistic that new budget guidance will effect this year's or even next year's production."
Because of the long lead time to procure raw stock material for many of the items the arsenal manufactures, it may be 12 to 18 months from the receipt of an order before the first shipment begins.
In 2013, sequestration not only made Defense Department program managers, who order weapon systems and components, hesitant to place new orders, it also negatively affected the arsenal's current operations. Several lines of production were slipped to a later delivery date due to such things as a hiring freeze that prohibited the arsenal from filling critical vacancies and, as previously mentioned, furloughs.
Two budget areas the arsenal is now closely following are funding for procurement and research & development, both of which directly or indirectly influence the arsenal's long-term viability. Procurement may be the most obvious indicator of where future workload may come from as funding for new weapon systems or product improvements for current systems may start to flow.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently stated, "While the budget doesn't solve every budget problem facing DOD, it will help address our military readiness challenges by restoring funding for training and procurement, especially in FY 2014."
The fact that Hagel highlighted procurement may be good news for the Army's industrial base.
Although the arsenal does not directly conduct weapons research and development, it relies heavily on those organizations that do, such as Army's Benét Laboratories that is collocated on the arsenal.
Benét Labs is the Army's research, development, and prototype authority for large caliber cannon and mortar systems and is responsible for the lifecycle of mortars, tank guns, and artillery cannons.
Although Benét Labs was officially established in 1962, its origins and support to arsenal manufacturing date back to the 1840s when the arsenal established a research facility on post along the banks of the Erie Canal.
So, what happens to Benét, in regards to research and development funding, affects the arsenal. Just about every arsenal item of production, from 155 mm howitzer cannons to 60 mm inconel mortar tubes, can trace its roots to Benét Labs.
The advantages of having Benét Labs on the arsenal go beyond the tremendous synergy that is achieved by having a research and design team just a five-minute walk from those who will manufacture the product. Benét Labs also brings workload to the arsenal as it uses arsenal manufacturing to assist in such things as prototype development. Once the prototype is proved out, what better place for production to begin than with the arsenal that now has the tooling in place and the manufacturing expertise to go into full production.
But when Defense Department R&D budgets get cut, such as what happened in this year's appropriations bill, Benét Labs and arsenal leaders know that there will be a trickledown effect that may touch programs Benét Labs is working and thus, on many of the arsenal's programs, too.
Besides the workload for large caliber weapon systems and components, Benét supports the development of many products that do not have the visibility that major weapons programs do.
To support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Benét worked on programs such as armor protection kits for wheeled vehicles to Abrams tank cooling kits for crews to forward observer/forward air controller radio kits.
Today, Benét is working on several low visibility programs but ones that have the ability to either make our troops more lethal or more survivable on the battlefield.
In 2009, Benét Labs began research and development on a product called an Electronic Thermal Warning Device for the M777 lightweight towed howitzer. After years of research, design, and testing, the Army gave its approval to go into full production last fall.
But thermal warning devices are not new to the Army's field artillery.
In the 1975 Fires Bulletin from Fort Sill, Okla., then 2nd Lt. Arnold M. Manaker discussed several major product improvements, such as a thermal warning device. This device allowed advance cannon technology to achieve extended ranges and a higher volume of fire by managing thermal and mechanical stresses.
Christopher Smith, a mechanical engineer with Benét Labs, further explained the TWD shows the temperature of the tube so that a cannon crewman may take proper action during a cook-off of propellants and or a projectile, or may be used to assist in determining barrel wear.
"What is significantly different with the electronic thermal warning device is that the older device used mercury to measure temperature," Smith said. "The electronic version provides a more accurate measurement of tube heat under heavy stress and does so without any environmental concerns."
A few buildings away from Smith is Stephen Bartolucci, Ph.D., a Benét Labs materials scientist, who is doing research using a $1.5 million Dual-Beam Field Emission Microscope that he recently placed into operation.
"The capability that this microscope provides puts Benét on an even playing field with academic and other research facilities in the field of nanotechnology," Bartolucci said. "We can now see the affects that occur when the microscope's ion beam is directed at a composite tube and do so at resolutions 50 thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair."
Why is this important? By injecting such things as nanotubes or by reconfiguring the basic structure of the atoms in steel alloys, cannon tubes may eventually be made stronger, be able to withstand higher heat, and be made with much lighter material. This is a potential win for the Soldier who is always concerned with tube heat, the logistics planner who must move the cannon, and for the arsenal that may end up with a future production order.
Beyond the R&D that supports arsenal production, Benét Labs continuously seek ways to be a good tenant on the arsenal by its controlling operation costs.
Ryan Rousseau, a mechanical engineering technician in the fatigue lab at Benét, raised awareness to the Benét leadership about the high level of city water consumption and environmental risk caused by the open-loop cooling systems in his lab. Annual water consumption was averaging about 600,000 gallons a year.
On his own initiative, Rousseau designed and built a closed loop-system using mostly repurposed and underutilized equipment. The required equipment and components were gathered from terminated projects, scrap bins, storage rooms, then modified and put to use. With the support of fellow lab worker, Mike Knapp, this project was completed in about seven months.
If Benét Labs had to purchase the chiller it would have cost the organization more than $150,000. Rousseau completed the job for about $2,500 and that doesn't address the cost avoidance for the arsenal of not having to purchase nearly 600,000 gallons of water a year.
While DOD budget gurus are now assessing the 1,500-plus pages of the appropriations bill, the Watervliet Arsenal and Benét Labs anxiously wait for detailed funding guidance, which is something both organizations have been doing together for more than 170 years.
The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States. It began operations during the War of 1812, and celebrated its 200th year of continuous service to the nation on July 14, 2013.
Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $90 million.
Benét Laboratories is a Department of the Army research, development and engineering facility located at the Watervliet Arsenal. It is a part of the Weapons & Software Engineering Center (WSEC), Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC), which is located at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.