Women in STEM: the Backbone of Crane Army

By Hayley SmithMarch 29, 2018

Women in STEM: the Backbone of Crane Army
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Lara Zilafro, (right) explains the pyrotechnic fabrication process to visitors during a tour of the Crane Army Ammunition Activity pyrotechnics facility. Women's contributions to CAAA help the Activity provide munitions readiness to the U.S. Army and... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Women in STEM: the Backbone of Crane Army
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Lauren Shipman (center) reviews an area development plan with Crane Army Ammunition Activity facility and production engineers for the Crane Flexible Manufacturing Complex. Women's contributions to CAAA help the Activity provide munitions readiness ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

CRANE, Ind. - Since its beginning in World War II, women served a vital role at the Crane base from sewing parachutes for flares, to working on the munitions lines to performing administrative duties. Today as Crane Army Ammunition Activity carries on the legacy ammunition mission, women continue providing critical support in nearly every role of its operations.

Women rose through the ranks at CAAA over the years, especially in traditionally male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Some continued in STEM positions their entire careers while others progressed to other areas such as management or operations. Regardless of their professional disciplines, they rely on the skills gained during their STEM education and experience for success.

One lifelong STEM professional is Lauren Shipman, a civil engineer serving as the master planner for Crane Army. She designs construction projects and manages endeavors ranging in scope from single buildings to major complexes at the Activity. Currently, her main project is the Crane Flexible Manufacturing Complex, a multi-building facility that modernizes and brings together various production lines to more efficiently produce munitions for the Warfighter.

"The Crane Flexible Manufacturing Complex is the largest undertaking CAAA has had in its timeframe," Shipman said. "It's interesting because I'm trying to integrate modernization work currently happening in the field with ongoing process designs. In a perfect world, I would receive the operation requirements, design the buildings based on those requirements, construct them, and turn the complex back over for production."

Unlike many construction and design projects, the CFMC facility is renovating the existing structures while implementing new processes. This provides Shipman with challenges to make the operation flow smoothly.

"At the pace CFMC is being constructed, the production process design is happening concurrently with all the building renovations, so it's a lot of coordination," Shipman said. "It's kind of like making a jigsaw puzzle fit together- it's fascinating."

Shipman started her career in transportation design performing calculations for roadway alignments and drainage systems. She later worked at a construction company, where she took on more operations responsibility, before starting her government career at Naval Facilities Engineering Command at Naval Support Activity Crane designing and managing construction projects.

Eager for new challenges, Shipman joined CAAA as the Activity's first energy manager.

"I was intrigued by the energy manager job," Shipman said. "I had never done anything like that before, and the work called for a civil engineer, so I moved over to Crane Army."

Energy savings at Crane is not just about lowering utility bills. It is also a major part of increasing Army readiness.

"The purpose of energy management is to make Crane Army less reliant on outside providers," Shipman said. "We want to be more self-sufficient so we can sustain our mission of supporting the Warfighter with less dependency on other entities."

After two years leading energy reduction projects, including explosion-proof LED lighting initiatives in production buildings and taking holistic, more efficient approaches to building renovations, Shipman advanced to the master planning position.

"I really enjoy seeing my building and process designs being implemented and coming around full-circle," Shipman said. "It's the best part of the job; every project, no matter the size, starts out as a box on a piece of paper, and then a few months or years later, it's in full operation. It's pretty neat."

Whereas Shipman's career focused on engineering and design, Lara Zilafro, Crane Army's pyrotechnics commodity manager, used her chemical engineering background to propel herself into a management career working with technical experts.

"I'm responsible for the production of all pyrotechnic munitions at Crane Army," Zilafro said. "We primarily fabricate visible light and infrared illumination candles for the Army and Marine Corps, but also make delay elements and colored smokes and flares. These materials are energetic, but not explosive. They're meant to burn, not go 'boom.'"

Her STEM education helps her interact with her team more efficiently. Zilafro explained, "Being familiar with chemicals and mechanics helps me interact with the folks who really do have the answers, like the chemists or the engineers. I'm a manager. I'm not the technical expert on any of this. But the fact I speak the language helps bridge that gap to get problems solved and keep producing munitions for the Warfighter."

Zilafro's career at Crane Army began in demilitarization. She really enjoyed the hands-on, problem-solving nature of the work.

"It was always challenging," Zilafro said. "I had specific goals to demil particular items, such as chemically converting the materials in white phosphorus rounds into much safer phosphoric acid. I needed the equipment, I needed the people, and I needed the processes to get there. Then I had to find a way to put everything together to reach the endpoint. It was tangible. It was just tangible. I really liked that."

Her work ethic and desire to always make things better led to Zilafro's selection as one of four people to become CAAA's first Lean Six Sigma Black Belts. The Lean Six Sigma program is a continuous improvement methodology that helps Army installations become more efficient. In addition to classroom training, Black Belt candidates must complete two real-life projects to receive the certification.

Zilafro's projects focused on issues directly affecting Crane Army.

"One of the projects for my Black Belt certification was actually onsite at CAAA," Zilafro said. "I helped extend the life of the zinc tanks used at our plating shop by creating new operating procedures to reduce the amount of chemicals used. This maintained a higher quality of the zinc tanks for longer periods of time, leading to less operational downtime and better products."

Her work also ensured better protection for plating shop workers.

"In addition to the cost savings, reducing the amount of chemicals used decreases the amount of hazardous waste generated," Zilafro said. "Since our workers handle the hazardous waste, this decrease reduces their level of exposure and helps keep Crane Army employees safe."

Zilafro directly benefits from the results of her second Lean Six Sigma Black Belt project in her current role managing pyrotechnics. She studied a light tunnel, a quality control tool that determines if illumination candles burn brightly enough for use.

"I examined variations in light tunnel measurements and discovered that some types of weather affected the light tunnel so much that it registered some batches of illumination candles as substandard when that wasn't necessarily true," she said. "We weren't using perfectly good munitions, costing us time and money."

As a result of Zilafro's determinations, weather effects are now taken into account when candles are checked for quality and CAAA increased efficiency in illumination candle production.

After receiving her certification, Zilafro worked in, and eventually led, the continuous improvement office at Crane Army, putting her skills to use. In 2016, she became the pyrotechnic commodity manager. She credits her STEM education with providing her with the tools for success.

"My engineering degree taught me, 'You're not going to know how to do a whole lot of things. Here are your resources. Here's some other resources. Figure it out.' Ultimately, it's a mindset. It's a problem-solving mindset. That's how I've been able to get things done," Zilafro said.

Zilafro also stresses the importance of people putting themselves out there professionally and being willing to take on new challenges.

"Don't let fear or doubt stop you from trying something new, especially if you're not sure you'll like it or be good at it," Zilafro said. "Even now there's times when I'm not entirely sure what I want to do when I grow up."

Shipman and Zilafro represent just two of the many women at Crane Army who continue the proud tradition of supporting the Warfighter.

Crane Army Ammunition Activity produces and provides conventional munitions requirements in support of U.S. Army and Joint Force readiness. It is one of 14 installations of the Joint Munitions Command and one of 23 organic industrial bases under the U.S. Army Materiel Command, which include arsenals, depots, activities and ammunition plants. Established Oct. 1977, it is located on Naval Support Activity Crane.