Magazine article National Defense

Weapon Makers Contend with Decline in U.S. Manufacturing

Magazine article National Defense

Weapon Makers Contend with Decline in U.S. Manufacturing

Article excerpt

Manufacturers of military hardware worry that a shortage of skilled labor in the United States is impinging on their ability to deliver high-tech equipment to the Defense Department. The situation progressively has worsened during the past five years, when nearly 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have vanished, experts noted.

In a recent survey of defense contractors, 70 percent of the companies cited shortages of skilled labor as an impediment in serving their customers, said John S. VanKirk, president and executive director of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, in Latrobe, Pa.

The Defense Department established the NCDMM in 2003 to help military agencies and defense contractors improve manufacturing processes and inject new technology into production facilities.

While manufacturing jobs are down, the demand for skilled labor in the defense sector is way up, VanKirk said in an interview. "We are not filling the current demand."

The decline in U.S. manufacturing also has resulted in a diminishing pool of expert technicians who can assemble components that are made of new materials such as aluminum alloys and plastics, which are replacing steel in modern weapon systems, VanKirk said.

While many commercial manufacturers have shifted their operations offshore, defense contractors and military depots are bound by so-called "Buy America" laws to produce most of the contents of a weapon system domestically.

Defense contractors and military depots increasingly are seeking help from the NCDMM in areas such as worker training, machine tool upgrades and advice on how to increase the efficiency of their assembly lines, VanKirk said. "Our business is growing ... We see triple-digits growth every year." The center's revenues--including both government funds and private industry contracts--have soared from $1.1 million in 2004 to $5.2 million in 2006.

Army depots, which had to rapidly surge their production capability for the war in Iraq, are among the NCDMM's biggest customers. Some of these depots not only operate outdated equipment but also became highly inefficient during the past several decades because they lacked enough orders to run at full capacity. A dramatic surge in the demand for vehicles, weapons and other gear is now forcing depots to become more efficient and to upgrade their machining tools. A case in point is the Army's Picatinny Arsenal, N. …

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