By Mark HenrySeptember 23, 2019
BLUE GRASS ARMY DEPOT, RICHMOND, KENTUCKY - Following the terrorists' attacks of 9/11, Blue Grass Army Depot was selected as one of only two Army depots to begin renovating the venerable M1 105mm HE Howitzer round. At that time, the immediate need was to support Middle East battlefield requirements in the newly-proclaimed Global War on Terrorism. Basically, the job was to fill the 105mm munitions pipe line as quickly as possible.
After some 18 years, BGAD continues to renovate the 105mm round, but military objectives as well as production processes have evolved to better meet future contingencies.
In 2001, an unthinkable act of terrorism thrust the country into an immediate war-time posture calling for a ramp up of the nation's organic industrial base, or OIB.
In 2019, Army strategic planning now includes modernization plans focused on the number one priority of readiness and the concept of multi-domain operations to ensure the right equipment and supplies are positioned to generate, project and sustain U.S. forces. The OIB...which includes BGAD...is a key focus area according to Gen. Gustave Perna, Commanding General of the Army Materiel Command.
"Our arsenals, depots and ammunition plants must be able to operate, adapt and modernize to meet current and surge requirements," he said. "We must modernize and ensure quality, timeliness and accountability, and come in at the lowest cost possible because every dollar saved can be extended to the force."
BGAD's 105mm renovation process in 2002 focused primarily on manual labor, with little to no automation. Some 35 workers were involved in breaking down the rounds, replacing propellant and primer, re-stenciling and repacking.
"At that time, we were producing around 400 rounds per day at a per-round cost of approximately $105," reports BGAD Maintenance and Demil Project Manager Brandon Firmature, "well below the $500 price for new production.
But it wasn't long before competitive rates became a factor and the Depot's Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) program started implementing changes.
"If you've worked very long at a Joint Munitions Command (JMC) installation, you know that CPI is the watchword for arsenals and depots that have to compete for business," Firmature says. "CPI is the key to delivering ready, reliable and lethal munitions readiness at all levels of war. JMC's motto is Provide Lethality That Wins...and that's what we're going to continue to do."
By 2014, the daily production rate had reached approximately 500 rounds per day.
Today, following the implementation of multiple process improvements...including an automated X-Ray process to locate defective rounds and automated primer inspection and box stenciling...the BGAD 105mm renovation line is producing more than 700 rounds per day with a surge capacity of 960 on an extended shift. Along with facility and safety improvements ensuring a quality work environment, the BGAD 105mm renovation process today bears little resemblance to the original.
"When we talk about becoming more efficient and effective, most people will think in terms of lowered costs, increased production and improved quality," says Col. Joseph Kurz, BGAD Commander, "but what has become clear under the Army's new focus is that we are making a huge impact on surge capacity capability. Over the last seven years, we've been able to increase our daily production rate by more than 60 percent, as well as reduce our unit cost by 30 percent from $105 to $73...all with three fewer employees. Our 105mm renovation line is one of our center pieces that we're always eager to highlight as a BGAD Team success in optimizing the value of every dollar entrusted to us by the American taxpayer."
Future process improvements are in the plan, according to Firmature, which are expected to continue to positively impact unit costs, production rates and, of course, surge capacity.
"Right now we still have some bottlenecks surrounding our automated X-Ray system that we are going to eliminate," says Firmature. "We have specialized pallets or fixtures that carry rounds to, through and from the X-Ray, but these fixtures must be manually manipulated prior to and after the X-Ray. There are plans to install a new overhead conveyor system and robotic arms that will enable the automatic positioning of these fixtures as well as pick-and-place the rounds from and back to the primary conveyor belt as they enter and leave the X-Ray."
Firmature noted that the initial expectations from these next process improvement steps should result in an additional 10 to 20 percent increase in production, as well as greatly reduce the risk of injury to personnel. He believes that after these planned process improvements, the daily production rate could increase to an estimated 768 rounds per day with a potential surge capacity of 1,056 rounds on an extended shift.
Col. Kurz concluded by saying, "Going forward, surge capacity will continue to play a more and more important role in how BGAD and other JMC installations define our commitment to supporting our nation's joint warfighters by helping ensure they are provided the lethality to overwhelm and defeat any enemy, on any battlefield. Winning matters and BGAD's 105mm renovation process is at the forefront of the critical surge capacity capability."