Magazine article National Defense

Army Aims for Agile Ammo Assembly

Magazine article National Defense

Army Aims for Agile Ammo Assembly

Article excerpt

Future needs for smart weapons spark `virtual factory'

Efforts by Army ammunition designers to forge industrial alliances with commercial manufacturers point to the service's desire to modernize its equipment. But they also shed light on an ongoing struggle within the Army to balance the needs of the future with today's immediate demands.

Under a $35 million program, the Army wants to bring information-age technology to the munitions factory floor. The goal behind this technology is to establish a "virtual" factory so that government and commercial shops can transfer data to each others' assembly lines and produce items on short notice.

Currently, the Army owns 24 ammunition plants that supply ordnance and related products and services. Thirteen of those facilities are run by private firms. They are part of the Army's Industrial Operations Command (IOC), Rock Island, Illinois. The command serves as the Defense Department's "single manager for conventional ammunition," and is responsible for supplying ammunitions for small arms, mortars, automatic canons, artillery and Navy guns, bombs, unguided rockets, land mines, demolition material, grenades, flares and pyrotechnics.

But these facilities are not equipped to make the sophisticated rounds -which can be precisely targeted and operate in all weather-- the Pentagon increasingly favors for use in combat, said Thomas A. McWilliams. He is the operations manager at the Army's Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), based at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. The center is part of the Tank-automotive Command, located in Warren, Michigan.

"This is a reality that presents obvious problems ... The current [industrial] base isn't ready for smart munitions ... It's oversize, inflexible, costly. We can't use it for our smart rounds," he told National Defense during an industry conference in Philadelphia. The Army is not equipped to produce these high-tech rounds quickly or cheaply enough to satisfy the service's needs in the future, said McWilliams.

For that reason, he said, ARDEC is funding a project called Totally Integrated Munitions Enterprise, or TIME. It consists of modules of software that instruct manufacturing equipment to make parts based on specific designs. Because it is Windows-based, TIME makes it possible for various assembly facilities to exchange information and work together as a big virtual factory.

"I can take a process [to make munitions] from an Army plant and put it in a commercial facility via TIME," said McWilliams.

Manufacturing Plants

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is under contract to develop the software for TIME, called open modular architecture controller. "That is the interface of the controller into any company" that is part of the virtual factory, explained Charles Osiecki, team leader for the project at ARDEC. This controller is designed to replace the proprietary systems commonly found in manufacturing plants.

Between 1997 and 1999, the Army has invested $35 million on TIME under a three-phase project that has one more year to go.

"The controller is all software based, versus older controllers that are hardware components such as motion control cards," said Peggy Poggio, head of the manufacturing technology program at Livermore lab.

During a recent live demonstration of TIME, machine tools were used to make parts with data that was electronically transferred from an Army site to the lab.

"It cut the part the way it was supposed to cut it," Poggio said. "The idea was to build components quickly without changing the [assembly] lines significantly like older lines that are not flexible. "We are now trying to move our controller from Windows 95 to Windows NT. We are going to add more features and move it to other machines," she added.

McWilliams predicts TIME will become a success story in the manufacturing world. "We are asking industry to join the virtual factory. …

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