Today's Army arsenal: Heretics or simply smart advocates for change?
April 15, 2014
- Fiscal uncertainty drives the Watervliet Arsenal into untested waters.
- As productions orders slow, arsenal must seek niche markets to retain its critical skill base.
- Story: Arsenal announces $6.7M in new contracts, bringing total to more than $18M in last 60 days
- Story: Army manufacturer seeks to raise its quality, confidence of infantrymen
- Story: SecArmy visits, touts, challenges Watervliet
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WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (April 15, 2014) -- If the Watervliet Arsenal's cannon makers from the 1800s saw what is happening today at their arsenal would they proclaim that today's machinists are "heretics" or would they be more generous in their thoughts?
So, what is going on today at Watervliet that would certainly have caused a debate on the old parade grounds in the 1800s?
Tom Buckton, one of the arsenal's lead program managers, said that given today's intense competition for defense contracts, in an era of declining defense budgets, seeking work into non-traditional markets makes sense.
"We just received two contracts from the Defense Logistics Agency for vehicle axles for 5-ton trucks and for firing mechanisms for a U.S. Navy submarine," Buckton said. "No one here can recall if the arsenal has ever manufactured products for DLA."
Although the arsenal has been in continuous operation since 1813, it was not until the late 1800s when the arsenal became the Army's primary, large-caliber manufacture of cannons. And therefore, the arsenal has for more than 100 years focused on large orders, Buckton said.
"We haven't given up on our core mission of manufacturing large caliber products, but production orders have slowed in recent years and we must do what it takes to keep our critical skill base active," Buckton said. "Even if it means that we go after small orders that we would not have considered just two to three years ago."
According to Peter Keegan, the arsenal business development officer, "We contacted DLA last summer and told them to send us anything for a quote that requires close-tolerance machining, fabrication, or heat treatment. We started receiving a wide-range of requirements from DLA that had such items as boots, canteens, as well as for the axles and firing mechanisms."
The challenge when entering a niche market, such as production for DLA, is that the arsenal does not have an established vendor base for raw stock, programs for the computer-numerical controlled machines, tools and fixtures, or a historical understanding of the funding process. Additionally, the first DLA orders are for what are called "low-production" requirements.
Although these DLA orders amount to less than $1 million, there are many at the arsenal who hope that these small orders may lead to larger orders in the future, said Keegan. Whatever it takes to bring in new workload the arsenal must do even if it means a little extra work up front.
"We can't sit back and hope that orders come to us," Keegan said. "We have to aggressively seek new avenues for workload, get out of our comfort zone, and find new work."
After every military conflict since the War of 1812, there have been the ebbs and flows of defense funding that have guided, if not forced, the arsenal to convert itself in order to continue as an Army-owned and operated manufacturing center. Today's military leaders often use the term "transformation" as a necessary means to a new end state. The arsenal workforce historically has called it for what it is ̶ Survival.
So, given that the arsenal machinists in the 1890s had to transform the arsenal from a manufacturer of saddles to a manufacturer of cannons, today's machinist must also transform to ensure the arsenal's long-term viability as an Army-owned and operated manufacturing center. Not as heretics, but as advocates for change.
In the meantime, the arsenal will begin shipping both orders in 2015.
The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary in July 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 $100 million.