By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalJanuary 28, 2016
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- How is it that the person who typically gets noticed in a crowd is the one who quietly stands still, while others are shouting and jumping up and down trying to get the attention? The same analogy may be applied to machinery at the Army's manufacturing plant at Watervliet, N.Y., said an Arsenal general foreman.
"Some may think that it is the large machines, which may cost several million dollars each, that would get the most recognition here," said Scott Huber, an Arsenal general foreman. "But I have to say that what catches most of my attention recently are the smaller, computer-controlled machines that we have recently brought on line on one of the least visited production floors of the Arsenal."
The new, smaller machines are located in what is called the minors production building, which is an area rarely part of any senior Army leader's visit schedule, Huber said.
"For example, one horizontal milling machine that we recently brought on line can hold 120 sets of tools, whereas the machine it replaced could only handle 40 tools," Huber said. "This additional capability, when combined with a 1,000 percent increase in rpm, has reduced production time for 40 different product lines by up to 75 percent."
Additionally, new multi-task lathes that are primarily used for mortar production can machine mortar parts in about one-twentieth of the time that it once took. Not only does this significantly reduce the labor cost rate, it also increases the capacity, which is the volume of what the Arsenal may produce per product line.
Given the Arsenal's recent success in bringing on line smaller, very capable machines, why wouldn't the Arsenal simply focus on these low cost machines?
There are a lot of variables the Arsenal leadership considers before they invest one dollar into new capability, said James Kardas, the Arsenal's program manager for the Capital Investment Program or CIP.
"We consider such decision criteria as the maintenance costs of mature machines, the availability of parts to repair older machines, the available budget, and do we have a mission for the new capability," Kardas said. "But the driving factor into which machines we purchase has to do with the budget that is available for CIP."
There may be times when Kardas wishes he could purchase a larger machine but cannot due to the size or lack of a budget. For example, even though the Arsenal is a $1.6 billion manufacturing complex, it received no funding for its FY 2016 CIP program.
Imagine the challenges a defense contractor might have trying to remain competitive if it could not reinvest in its manufacturing plant. Such are the challenges the Watervliet Arsenal must work through as one of just three remaining Army-owned and operated arsenals. But a challenge the Arsenal's leadership and workforce have met head-on for more than 202 years.
In the meantime, Kardas agrees with Huber's assessment that even the minor-component machines have the potential to save tens of thousands of dollars every year due to reduced machine set-up time and for reduced cost of maintenance and repairs of the mature machinery.
The other value added by these new minor component machines is that they now create an environment for a robust conversation into whether or not the Arsenal makes or buys a part, Huber said.
"In the past, if we had a requirement for a low production part that didn't require a significant amount of machining, we often went to a vendor to produce that part for us," Huber said. "Now that several of the newer machines have the capability to machine faster and along more axes, the option to make or buy has becomes part of the discussion as we develop a quote for a customer."
And so, at this small Army post in upstate New York, the Watervliet Arsenal is taking prudent actions to provide stability to its workforce, efficiency to its manufacturing quality, and improved quality to the Soldier by looking at small, incremental changes that can have a significant return on investment.
CIP allows the Army's manufacturing center at Watervliet to upgrade and modernize its equipment and infrastructure.
There are three categories of CIP funding: capital equipment; minor construction; and automated data processing equipment. Capital equipment includes such projects as purchasing new lathes or to rebuild an existing machine.
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 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 had revenue in fiscal year 2015 that exceeded $138 million and provides an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.