Arsenal's tool designers: Whose history shapes the future

By John B. SnyderMarch 6, 2012

Arsenal's tool designers: whose history shapes the future
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Watervliet Arsenal Tool Designer John Zullo builds a 3-D sketch of a special tool that will be needed to support a new order for a weapon system. Zullo has been a tool desiger at the Arsenal since 1975. When he started, he had to do these sketches ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Arsenal's tool designers: whose history shapes the future
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- I was recently wandering around the inside of the Arsenal's old Soldiers barracks building thinking about what life must have been like at the Arsenal 170 years ago when I suddenly realized that I had wandered into a place where few travel. Tucked away in a back room on the third floor of a building, to which I still don't know the number to, was a place called the tool design office. Inside were John Zullo and Greg Tilley, the Arsenal's two remaining tool designers.

John told me that in the early 1990s there were 15 tool designers at the Arsenal. He tried to explain to me that the Arsenal lost 13 designers due to the nine reductions in force that occurred in the 1990s. But I knew better. I have no doubt those tool designers couldn't find their way back to this remote office and simply settled for some other job.

John has been working at the Arsenal since 1970 when he signed on as an apprentice. He has been a tool designer since 1975. Wow, 37 years later and he still hasn't found his way out his office.

Greg was cut from a different cloth. He joined the Arsenal workforce four years ago after graduating from the University of Buffalo with a degree in mechanical engineering. According to John, Greg is his succession plan.

The stark difference between John and Greg was only overshadowed by the visual differences that I saw in this office.

As I walked into the office, just off to the right were a series of filing cabinets that one would find at the Arsenal about the time the Arsenal completed its first 16-inch gun. The year was 1902.

These old cabinets had hundreds of files drawers that were jammed with record of tooling cards that date back to World War II, if not longer, John said.

When I looked at the rows upon rows of files, I immediate thought of the A&E television series called Hoarders. But John and Greg assured me there was a method to their…madness. This is my word usage, not theirs.

John said each card told a story.

The stories they tell explain what special tools, gauges, or fixtures were required to assist in the manufacturing of Arsenal products during a distinctive time period. John like the word "distinctive," but maybe "historic" might be a better use of words. Nevertheless, in these files, one could look up the tooling that was required for such products as a mortar tube during the Korean War or an engineer's bridge during the Vietnam War or an Abrams Tank cannon during the war in Iraq.

I asked john the obvious question, "Why do we need to keep all of these cards?

John, who is obviously not used to having visitors to his little hideaway, especially ones that questioned his operations, offered a couple of examples of why the Arsenal maintains these cards.

A few years ago, the U.S. Air Force came to the Arsenal to manufacturer 105mm cannons for their AC-130 gunships. Well, the Arsenal had not made these cannons since the 1960s but thanks to having the data cards, tool designers and planners had a foundation from which to begin production. This saved thousands of dollars in production planning time, John said.

He added that recently the Arsenal prepared a quote on a new bridge for the U.S. Army. Tucked away in John's files were the requirements for a bridge the Arsenal manufactured during the Vietnam War -- another foundation from which to assist the Arsenal's planners.

The contrast to all of this was that on John's computer was a 3-D drawing of a fixture he was currently working on. I was fascinated as he moved this computer-aided design of a fixture to show how it would work once it was manufactured.

This 3-D designing was a far cry from the old days when John started at the Arsenal. Back then, he would painstakingly stand over a draftsman table for days to pencil in a tool design. Now he can do the same design on his computer in significantly less time. Although he still has that old draftsman table in his office, it now holds the computer printouts of tool designs that he did on his computer.

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.

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.

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