Special Reports

Military machines

By Lisa Rummler

november/December- Saving lives. This is a job requirement for a select few, such as members of the military. But many engineers and manufacturers indirectly protect U.S. troops through the products they develop, including those at BAE Systems Inc., Rockville, Md.

A recent example of such an undertaking garnered the praise of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: BAE Systems was asked to design, develop and manufacture mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, going up to a production rate of 20 vehicles a day--all within five to six months.

In a letter to BAE Systems, Gates wrote, "During my recent visit to Iraq, I saw firsthand the enthusiasm and confidence generated in our soldiers by MRAPs. ... Please know that you have my appreciation and thanks for the exceptional efforts made by your employees and your suppliers to deliver MRAPs, and thus greater safety, to the men and women deployed in combat."

To complete the aforementioned assignment, BAE Systems, the U.S. subsidiary of London-based BAE Systems plc, had to draw upon the talents of many people across the company’s two large operating groups and myriad subgroups--and among its outside suppliers. This was no small feat for a company with about 55,000 employees in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel and South Africa.

The company’s Ground Systems organization, part of the Land and Armament Systems operating group, developed a scaleable manufacturing network, says Jim Payne, director of advanced manufacturing for BAE Systems. To do so, the company had to access the best companies and technologies in the country.

"To start from a clean sheet of paper, so to speak, to vehicles coming off the assembly line in five months, at those rates, was obviously a major challenge," says Payne. "We didn’t have, nor did we try to install, all of that capability within BAE Systems. And that’s when we embarked on structuring the scaleable manufacturing network. A perfect example is that we’re fabricating at multiple sites, often with what we refer to as ‘dual sourcing.’ In other words, two different sites around the country may be producing the same component, but that’s necessary from a volume and throughput standpoint. It’s the same thing for final assembly. On these vehicles, we do final assembly--depending on the volumes--at four different locations around the country."

Material matters
The scaleable manufacturing system specifically assembled for the MRAP vehicle program comprised many groups, each bringing its own specific capability, technology or strength.

"It starts with raw plate coming from suppliers into our network of suppliers and subcontractors, where much of the fabrication work is accomplished," says Payne. "And it’s accomplished with all the current and latest technologies in terms of forming, fabricating and welding some difficult materials that go into a tactical vehicle like we’re producing."

That difficulty stems from the fact that even though the MRAP vehicles are categorized as tactical vehicles, the level of ballistic protection they provide approaches that of combat vehicles. They also have high mobility, and the vehicles’ technology allows them to survive improvised explosive devices, as well as explosively formed projectiles.

Accordingly, the primary materials that go into the automotive and crew compartments of the MRAP vehicles are composite materials, armored aluminum and ballistic steel, which has been specially processed to meet and defeat a given ballistic threat or projectile.

Payne says the ballistic-grade steel, which is used in engine and crew compartment weldments, is cut to shape using large CNC laser cutting machines. Large CNC plasma cutting machines are used for nonballistic steel, which is used for accessory assemblies, such as toolboxes. CNC waterjets cut the composite material that makes up the ballistic protection system.

"The bulk of the material in this vehicle is ballistic armor, steel, and it takes some special processes and procedures to do that effectively so it not only meets the requirements from an automotive standpoint, but more importantly, it meets the requirements from a ballistic-protection standpoint," says Payne. "That’s what made this program interesting from a forming and fabrication standpoint because working with this material isn’t something that every company and every fabricating facility can do. We relied heavily on our network, and we also brought on some new capability as part of this program."

Investing in technology
To accomplish this, BAE Systems made extensive investments in new technologies, specifically laser cutting capability, robotic welding and forming capability (because of the unusually large plates that make up the vehicles and because the MRAP materials can be difficult to form).

Payne says the Ground Systems organization and its strategic production partners invested more than $60 million for installing the fabrication and assembly capacity. This amount doesn’t include investments by BAE Systems’ supply base that provides nonballistic attachments and components.

"We made those investments for specific reasons," says Payne. "To achieve the kind of throughput and velocity that we needed in our manufacturing system, we couldn’t, in our view, accomplish it by doing it manually because we just didn’t have access to the qualified and skilled welders for these kinds of materials and these processes. And we needed volumes approaching 20 units a day across the production system, which wasn’t available from a manual-welding standpoint. That’s when we went to welding automation for both quality and throughput."

As such, BAE Systems invested in robotic welding systems that range from a single robot to automated systems that encompass up to seven stations employing 12 robots. Other specific investments include a 96-in.-by-244-in.-capacity CNC laser cutting machine, as well as similarly sized waterjet and plasma cutting machines.

"We’re talking large machines here--large plate fabrication capability, followed by some large forming capability," says Payne. "Because one of the reasons that allows these vehicles to survive [IED and EFP?attacks] involves what’s referred to as V-hull technology. That involves forming of continuous plates. So one continuous plate, at least in our product, forms the bottom of the vehicle, which allows for and aids in that survivability."

Large presses are used to form those V-shaped sections found on the bottom of the crew compartment to accommodate single-piece construction.

BAE Systems provides the weldings for the MRAP vehicles’ crew compartment, and it does final assembly, integration and testing. Payne says the company focuses on elements that are critically important to the vehicle’s performance. The bulk of the nonessential vehicle components comes from BAE Systems’ supplier network, which consists of about 250 companies in 38 states for the MRAP vehicle program.

Adding electronics
In addition to its network of outside suppliers, subcontractors and strategic partners, BAE Systems’ Ground Systems organization relied a great deal on members of its Electronics group in producing the MRAP vehicles.

Hank Waters, director for integrated network solutions, says his group--which incorporates communication subsystems into land, sea and air military vehicles--faces constant evolution and revolution because of changing technological needs and that the MRAP vehicle program was no exception.

Recently, his team adapted an existing communication system so it could be part of an MRAP vehicle, which Waters says hadn’t been considered.

"Over the course of about three months, we did a lot of engineering work with multiple manufacturing companies, then we went up to [the facility] and looked at a similar vehicle," he says. "We put a kit together and redesigned it so there was no drilling in the hulls. It’s literally a bolt-in solution. Those are the ones I take a lot of pride in, when our teams can look at something and say, ‘Without flying to Iraq, without walking out and seeing the physical vehicle, we can design something, ship it to the troops and almost make it a plug-and-play.’ We’re just taking care of the folks over there. We protect the people who protect us." FFJ


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