Industry Must Sharpen Its Manufacturing Edge
by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
Defense Department leaders and members of Congress recently have voiced concerns about the mounting cost of weapons systems. Major procurement programs, including fighter aircraft, ships and ground vehicles, have been under intense scrutiny, and the pressure will continue for the foreseeable future as the defense budget continues to tighten.
The defense industry obviously must be concerned about these developments, which will affect companies large and small. As the industry seeks ways to cut costs, one area that deserves close attention is manufacturing. Even relatively small investments in advanced manufacturing processes can save millions of dollars in weapon costs.
Although key sectors of the manufacturing industry have been declining in the United States for several decades as companies have moved production plants offshore, the defense industry will need to reverse that trend and actually strengthen its manufacturing capabilities. By law, 50 percent of the content of U.S. weapon systems must be made domestically, and political sensitivities increasingly are pushing for more military equipment to be produced at home.
A study by the National Research Council recommended that the Defense Department augment its research and development manufacturing efforts. The report, titled “Defense Manufacturing in 2010 and Beyond,” notes that manufacturing plays a vital role in the nation’s defense capabilities. During the Cold War, defense products were manufactured largely by a dedicated defense industry. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of circumstances shaped defense manufacturing trends, such as changing threats to national security, declining defense budgets, consolidation of the industry, the increasing globalization and the accelerated rate of change of technology.
One area that the NRC identified as having the greatest potential for benefiting the defense industry is advanced manufacturing processes and technologies, such as predictive process control, high-speed machining, flexible tooling, soft tooling, tool-less assembly and embedded sensors.
Among the organizations that are actively engaged in developing advanced manufacturing processes is the non-profit National Center for Defense Machining and Manufacturing in Latrobe, Pa. NCDMM’s mission is to advance the use of state-of-the-art manufacturing solutions by U.S.-based manufacturers in-volved in the production of existing and yet-to-be developed defense systems. (By way of disclosure, I should mention that I recently was elected to serve on the NCDMM board of directors.)
The center’s funding comes from a mix of congressional appropriations, Defense and Energy department programs and private industry projects.
We often hear that the United States is way behind other countries in manufacturing technology and that the nation gradually is losing its specialized manufacturing skills. This is a sticky issue in the defense industry, where manufacturing competence is key to making the sophisticated weapon systems we expect to provide our armed forces.
Only through the adoption of state-of-the-market technologies can the industry remain at the top of its game, says Mark F. Huston, executive director of NCDMM. The Defense Department’s industrial depots unfortunately lack this technology. They have older equipment and, in some cases, outdated manufacturing processes that make it difficult for them to handle a growing workload of war-equipment repairs and overhauls.
NCDMM’s job is to understand what new technology and processes are available and to help both commercial companies and government industrial facilities implement them, Huston explains. The center estimates that its programs have saved the Defense Department and several of its contractors more than $30 million—about a 10-1 return on invested dollars. “As defense budgets and spending get cut, companies have to find faster and more efficient ways to produce the same amount of parts, if not more, with less funding,” says Glenn Sheffler, manager of outreach at NCDMM.
Among the most exciting initiatives that potentially could pay big dividends for the Army is a program called “Joint Ultimate Manufacturing Process Evolution and Development.”
JUMPED currently is being applied at Picatinny Arsenal to make components of the Army’s Excalibur precision-guided artillery munition. The manufacturing process was reduced from seven hours to about one hour. “This has been a real success story,” Huston says. The JUMPED initiative soon will be applied to a new project to build parts for the Chinook helicopter.
Innovation in manufacturing can be applied in many creative ways. A case in point is a retrofit kit that NCDMM developed for armored vehicles, to expedite the installation of new radios and other equipment on military platforms in the area of operations. Kits also were developed to facilitate armor installation. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was so impressed by the work that he earmarked $4 million in the fiscal year 2005 emergency war appropriation for the retrofit kit. The success of this initiative is underscored by the fact that it directly benefits war fighters in theatre.
The work now under way at NCDMM reminds us that the United States cannot afford to lose its lead in advanced manufacturing. This intellectual capital is what gives us the critical edge to make our defense industry the world’s most competitive—one that can deliver the best weapon systems to our military services.
Gaining a competitive edge in this area will require increased investment by both government and industry. Initiatives such as those taking place at NCDMM can help make this happen.
Please e-mail me your comments to Lfarrell@ndia.org