By John B. SnyderJune 28, 2016
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (June 2016) -- Leadership at this Army manufacturing center in upstate New York has found that even small tweaks to a production line can produce huge savings, savings they hope will go toward Army readiness.
In an era of declining defense budgets and fiscal uncertainty, Army leadership has directed all commands to strive for cost-cutting initiatives to preserve precious resources for the readiness of the force. Arsenal leadership heard that call and challenged its workforce to answer.
By seeking efficiencies that will either avoid future manufacturing costs or will return funding back to the Army as a result of production costs coming in below a contracted rate, arsenal leadership has found that -- referring to a baseball metaphor -- by looking for a "base hit" instead of always looking for the "home run" will still produce tangible results for the broader Army, while motivating the workforce by honoring their successes, no matter the size.
During a recent walk, through one of the production buildings, Arsenal Commander Col. Lee H. Schiller Jr. stopped by a small work team who were manufacturing bore evacuators for the Abrams tank system. Although not a high-dollar cost item for the tank, the evacuator is a critical piece of equipment that fits on a gun tube that helps reduce hazardous propellant gasses and pressure from venting back into the tank's firing department.
What Schiller knew when he stopped at that production line that day was that the arsenal has just received an order from the Army to provide a new lightweight-bore evacuator for the self-propelled howitzer system called Paladin.
"I knew that when we received the Army order that we had an experienced team," Schiller said. "Nevertheless, as good as my team was, I was a little concerned that the current low-rate production process for the Abrams tank would not support a high-rate production line, and one with a tight delivery schedule. And so, I challenged the team to look at the current tank process using Lean principles."
Gregory Stone, who supervises the arsenal's metal processors, said, "Last October when we received a large order to produce a lightweight-bore evacuator for the 155 millimeter howitzer, we knew immediately that we had to change our processes. What the commander did was to challenge us to use the unique capability of the arsenal's continuous improvement office's Lean principle experts to see if we could better prepare for full-rate production."
While prototype development for the howitzer evacuator was ongoing, Stone and his team worked closely with the continuous improvement office, as well as with Benét Laboratories, the Army's large caliber research and design facility that is collocated on the arsenal.
For more than 30 years, the arsenal has been manufacturing bore evacuators for the Abrams tank system, and to the common observer there may not appear to be significant differences between the two product lines. But there are.
"We discovered during prototype development for the howitzer evacuator that the process is more complex than what we were currently using for the tank evacuator," said Marvin Hunter, an arsenal metal processor work leader. "The howitzer evacuator is slightly larger than the tank system, requires a special machined liner, and the composite wrapping and cure process is different."
But one of the things that was learned through the Lean process was not to assume that just because a new product line is more complex that it will also be more expensive, because it wasn't in this case, Hunter said. But just as good as the cost savings are for the Army, which will exceed $130,000 over the life of the contract, is the reduction of more than 40 percent of the manufacturing time, a time savings that will position the arsenal well to meet tight delivery schedules.
Processing time was reduced by moving critical pieces of manufacturing equipment from other parts of the arsenal to a centralized production area, by having tool makers design specialized tooling, and by combining two gelcoat operations into one, Hunter said.
This month, the arsenal moved from a prototype-development phase into full-rate production, delivering 20 bore evacuators this month.
Given the arsenal did about $138 million in revenue last year, saving $130,000 may be qualified as a good base hit. But to that small team of metal processors here, it's a home run.
The new howitzer evacuator reduces the weight of the current version, which is made from steel, from 203 pounds to about 110 pounds for the new fiberglass version. Making the gun system lighter is secondary, however, to the effect of making a rather difficult maintenance job easier for the artillery crew members.
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. It is a subordinate command to TACOM LCMC and the Army Materiel Command.
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.