By Ms. Elyssa Vondra (Jackson)January 31, 2019
The Training Support Center at Fort Jackson may not look like much from the outside, but it is the only Army installation site that crafts injection molds to make dummy rifles for training, and one self-taught employee holds all of the knowledge on the entire production operation.
The center is currently testing out a tiered system to teach newbies his skills. A fellow employee developed the approach.
Fort Jackson is one of just four Army sites that produces dummy training rifles, and it's the only one that makes its own injection molds to craft the rifles.
Other installations contract the molds out.
"Here, we do it all in house," said Pete Lloyd, Training Aids, Devices, Simulators and Simulations manager.
To make dummy training rifles, TSC fits recycled barrels in an injection mold, melts down multi-colored material beads, and uses equipment to compress the materials together into the computer-designed piece.
The injection molds are key for efficiency, Lloyd said. "We can pump out weapons now."
It takes roughly three minutes to produce an M4.
Fort Jackson's rifles are shipped out across the United States and even to Germany and Kuwait when orders roll in.
Each mold can make at least 1 million dummy rifles that weigh the same as a loaded M4 for practical training without the liability of carrying a real loaded weapon.
Preston Palmer, the pattern-maker at TSC, is "the guy … that does all this," said Ron Cooper, a training support officer with the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security.
Cooper said Palmer is self-taught "in a bubble, without outside influence."
He's the "resident expert" on topics like injection molding, Lloyd said.
Decades past, Palmer was actually on the building committee for the current TSC site.
He started in "heavy equipment" 34 years ago at Fort Jackson.
He didn't have formal training or education in the field. He learned on the job.
"I'm not a trained machinist," Palmer said.
It all started when he taught himself to thread over the course of two years to put a newer crankshaft in his motorcycle.
"From there I learned," Palmer said.
Palmer has been in the field since before injection molds came out. At the time, pour molds were used exclusively.
Palmer started his career in the pour room, where he got into frequent arguments with the former machinist on post. Their disagreements had a common theme: Palmer's use of unwritten, self-made mold designs.
"It's not in the books; it's in my head," Palmer said. "You've got to go look (at pre-made designs) and figure it out."
The addition of Computer-Aided Manufacturing software and Computer-Aided Design, the CAD CAM, made it easier.
Palmer said an expert sat down with him for a week to help him learn the computer program.
Palmer claimed that being "very dyslexic" has actually helped him build molds.
"It mirrors sometimes to me, but I naturally see everything backwards," he said.
Passing Palmer's knowledge on to the next generation of employees is the goal now.
"We want to retain what he knows," Cooper said. "You want to maintain and retain that knowledge once you've got it."
It's important to the installation's budget and schedule, Cooper added.
To purchase an M4 mold externally, the cost can range from $300,000 to $400,000.
When another company produces your mold, "you're at the mercy of the company," Lloyd said.
They have other orders to fill, and the Army doesn't take priority. It can take a couple of months before they even start the production process.
Lloyd came up with a training program for newbies to learn Palmer's skills so they don't have to worry about that.
The series moves them first through in-school technical college education and then through various stages of operation at TSC.
They start in woodshop, where they make things like weighted carry boxes for the Forge, before advancing to metal shop. There, they work on molds and welding-related projects.
After that, employees advance to the CAD CAM stage, where they write software programs, model and build the injection molds.
Lloyd pitched his training system initiative to IMCOM as a model program, Cooper said, and received the feedback that it was "really great."
IMCOM may nominate Lloyd for an award, Cooper added, because his idea is "adaptable" and can be applied to other positions.
Lloyd has a business administration degree from Jefferson Community College. He said he never thought he would be in the fabrication business, but his former position as a warehouseman led him down this path.
He liked its military tie, since he served eight years in the Army.
There is no one single path into the injection mold business.
Matt Earhart is another TSC employee who said he never pictured being in a position like this, either.
Prior to this job, he served in the Army and was an exterminator.
Cooper said there are no "military feeder" jobs for this career.
"A lot of it is generational," Cooper added. "There's not a program … that trains you for this."