By John B. SnyderJuly 24, 2009
Manufacturing plants throughout the country have a tradition of temporarily shutting down their operations each year to provide the workforce an opportunity to take vacations.
In 2009, however, talk of shutting down in many manufacturing facilities has a negative connotation to it. After all, nearly 40,000 U.S. manufacturing plants closed between 2001 and 2008, according to a new book titled, "Manufacturing a Better Future for America."
But talk of shutting down this summer at the Watervliet Arsenal did not cause fear or stress in the workforce. In fact, the official shutdown this month was essentially a nonevent as few took time off for vacation.
Unlike many other U.S. producers, the Arsenal is prospering from five years of solid production growth. And technically, the Arsenal is currently in "full production" of all major product lines.
Today's full production is not the same as it was during World War II, when a workforce of nearly 10,000 filled the 143 acres of Arsenal property. But today's Arsenal workforce of 600 is working just as hard to meet tight production and delivery schedules to provide critical products to our nation's war fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Arsenal Commander Col. Scott N. Fletcher, this is the first time since the first Gulf War that the Arsenal has been in production of its entire main product line, from tank barrels to mortars to howitzer tubes.
Nevertheless, a heavy production load does not just mean long hours for those in the manufacturing bays, it also means the Arsenal's machinery, which some date back to World War II, takes a heavy pounding.
So, vacation to many this year didn't mean getting tanned on a Florida beach, it meant drilling, milling, and grinding high-strength metal alloys into products that should last a Soldier's career. The shutdown period also offered the Arsenal much needed time to get back to basics in regards to equipment and facility maintenance.
Leading into the shutdown period of 20 to 24 July, Fletcher launched a maintenance initiative called Total Productive Maintenance or TPM.
When times are good in manufacturing plants, a production-heavy focus may blur the organization's focus on requirements for such things as equipment maintenance. In essence, workers and machines are pushed to the max to make tight delivery schedules, and maintenance often becomes viewed as a nonprofit activity by the organization.
What Fletcher is trying to do with TPM is to educate and motivate the workforce to view equipment and plant maintenance as a profit activity. Not an easy task, but one that is required if the Arsenal workforce wants to remain viable in a globally competitive market.
Fletcher first took the TPM concept to the Arsenal's production leadership. After a lot of north-south nodding of the heads, Fletcher then went down in the trenches, so to speak, and visited the machine operators.
Reminiscent of "command maintenance days" in Army line units, Fletcher donned his overalls and joined a team of operators and apprentices on a 40-year old guide bore machine to perform operator maintenance.
One of the objectives of TPM is to maximize equipment effectiveness by reducing or eliminating unplanned downtime, and it all starts with the operator. To be successful, equipment operators must have a sense of ownership. After all, it is the operators who see, touch, and run the machines each day.
Making a mature machine sparkle was not easy and it wasn't the main task for Fletcher and his team of operators and apprentices.
According to Ray Gaston, chief of the Manufacturing and Support Division, and Kevin Galuski, chief of Industrial Electronic Support Division, operator maintenance and ownership is all about "pride."
"When I was a young machinist, operators treated the machines as if the machines were their cars. If the car looked good and ran good, that said a lot about the individual. The same was true with the machines," said Gaston.
Galuski added the second shift would not accept a machine if it wasn't properly cleaned and maintained.
On this command maintenance type of day, there were not only converts but also some who yearned for the days gone past.
So, while other manufacturing plants may enjoy a vacation shutdown this summer, the Arsenal continues in heavy production with a better sense of the impact that equipment and plant maintenance have on the organization's bottom line. But more importantly, a renewed sense of pride and ownership of plant and equipment was jump-started during a period of time when not much was to be accomplished during an annual shutdown period.