By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalOctober 17, 2017
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- In order to remain an active participant in the current and future efforts to improve Soldier readiness, the Army's manufacturing arsenal at Watervliet, N.Y., must first improve its internal readiness to meet its promises to U.S. and allied troops.
Although Congressionally-mandated sequestration hit the Arsenal workforce hard in 2013 with furloughs and a significant reduction in workload, something magical has happened this year. Finally, after several years of uncertain and declining defense budgets, the Arsenal has logged in more than $100 million in new work this year over what it had on its books at the same point in time last year. This work is directly related to the future readiness of U.S. and allied troops.
"We have an unbelievable challenge ahead of us and one we didn't see when I took command one year ago," said Arsenal Commander Col. Joseph Morrow at a recent town hall. "Between working on future cannon systems for the Army to providing howitzer cannons to India, we must use fiscal year 2018 to shape our operations to adjust to a new normal. A new normal that will require us to double our manufacturing capacity in just four years."
Readiness here is defined as having the manufacturing capability and capacity to provide continuous sustainment support to troops in the field, as well as responsive support to the Army's weapon modernization efforts, Morrow said. The bottom line is that the Arsenal's promise to provide critical weapons systems to the field and prototypes for Army researchers and weapon program managers must be met on time, with a high quality product.
The biggest challenge to ramping up the Arsenal's readiness, however, is the element of time.
According to Joseph Turcotte, the Arsenal's deputy commander, it takes the Arsenal up to two years to bring a new machine on line for manufacturing. This is due to a limited availability of vendors to produce a machine that would meet the unique manufacturing requirements here. And therefore, there are very few "off-the-shelf" machines available for Arsenal manufacturing.
Additionally, it takes the Arsenal four years and 8,000 hours of hands-on training to mature an apprentice into machinist, Turcotte said. Even if the Arsenal was able to hire a journeyman machinist from a civilian manufacturing center, it still would take about two years before that machinist is fully up to speed on the Arsenal's manufacturing processes and procedures.
To mitigate the effects of time, Morrow has challenged every division chief to develop team strategies that will lead to increase Arsenal readiness, which in turn will increase Army readiness. Additionally, every new employee, which were about 65 personnel this summer, should be "on boarded." On boarding is a sense of fast tracking the integration of every new employee so that they are more productive sooner. The Arsenal simply cannot wait two years to integrate new employees.
Some evidence of this on boarding process was found this month in the Arsenal's tool room where first-year apprentices were introduced to machining.
"There used to be a time when apprentices started working with scrap metal in their first month or two," said Anthony Polsinelli, tool room supervisor. "But if you could have seen these first-year apprentices making their first machining cuts, you would see that on day one they were working on products that were either needed to meet production requirements or to support the serviceability of manufacturing tools."
Given the recent increase in workload, Polsinelli explained the Arsenal no longer has the luxury of slowly transitioning apprentices into Arsenal production. They (apprentices) must be earning their pay on day one.
Some might wonder, however, if fast tracking new employees places them at risk. But Polsinelli and third-year apprentice Jamey Gray, who is coaching the first-year apprentices in the tool room, say that is not the case.
"My number one priority for all who work in the tool room is safety," Polsinelli said. "In fact, my definition of success for these apprentices is that they leave here without being injured or having damaged a machine."
"Although every apprentice is or will soon become a critical part of production, it is more important to me that they leave every day with the same number of fingers as they came into work with," Gray said. "And so, much of my daily training and coaching is related to safety."
An interesting result of the on-boarding process with apprentices is that they are thriving in this heightened environment.
Jason Nixon, a first-year apprentice who has a master's degree in Biology and Chemical Engineering, said that he loved being challenged on his first day of training.
"I didn't expect that on my first day that I would be machining a part for production," Nixon said. "Although my stress level was a little high, it made me feel great that I was supporting Soldiers on my first day."
After one week in the tool room, first-year apprentice Jason Scheilding was quickly put on the production floor making rails for a 105mm howitzer system.
"Throughout my life, I have always thrived when placed in a challenging situation and therefore, I think that it is great to quickly be an active participant in production," Scheilding said. "As a former Soldier, it truly makes me feel great that I am making a product that will be used by Soldiers."
The Arsenal apprentice program is proving that "on boarding" and or fast tracking the integration of new employees not only works, but it must be done in order for the Arsenal to support the increased readiness requirements of the nation's Soldiers.
The Watervliet Arsenal (pronounced water-vleet") is an Army-owned and -operated manufacturing facility located in Watervliet, New York. The Arsenal is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It is a subordinate command to the Army Materiel Command and the TACOM Life Cycle Management 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 has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.