SLEEK AUTOMATION: The Army’s new manufacturing capability will produce the 6.8 mm next-generation family of ammunition without affecting Lake City’s ability to deliver legacy 5.56 mm, 7.62 mm and .50-caliber ammunition. (Photo courtesy of Lake City)
Next Generation Squad Weapon ammunition need provides an opportunity to modernize Lake City Army Ammunition Plant.
by Maj. Jamie Michel
Among the Army’s modernization efforts is the Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW), which is scheduled to begin fielding in fiscal year 2022. The 6.8 mm small caliber ammunition will be produced at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (Lake City). The challenge will be to quickly add new manufacturing capabilities—a new caliber of ammunition with unique shell case technology different than the traditional brass cases manufactured at Lake City for the last 75 years—without disrupting current deliveries.
Modernizing a VINTAGE Airplane in Flight
Lake City, a 1940s era government-owned, contractor-operated manufacturing facility in Independence, Missouri, is the only such plant that produces small arms ammunition. The Army will be adding new capability to manufacture the 6.8 mm next-generation family of ammunition without affecting the plant’s ability to deliver legacy 5.56 mm, 7.62 mm and .50-caliber ammunition to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. There are numerous manufacturing process improvement opportunities when moving toward a modern manufacturing facility. Although the facility has recently undergone some equipment modernization, those investments were focused on maintaining legacy manufacturing facilities and processes to maintain readiness. To prepare for the new 6.8 mm next-generation ammunition, the Army will focus on a cutting-edge, system-level solution with emphasis on affordability, sustainability, flexibility and safety.
Modernizing its ammunition manufacturing facility will position Lake City to meet enduring requirements well into the future. The facility and manufacturing systems will be flexible and modular to promote transitioning new technologies and products into production, as well as potential to surge capacity as required. Industry best practices will increase safety and resilience, as mass energetics (explosive materials used for manufacturing bullet primers and propellant) will be separated from people and critical infrastructure by way of efficient and safe delivery systems. Modern energetic delivery systems reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the possibility of explosion and minimize the risk of fire.
THE GOCO RELATIONSHIP
Government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) facilities were established to reduce supply chain risk and ensure critical ammunition is available in times of need. GOCOs are owned or leased by the government and operated by industry partners, resulting in reduced cost and risk for the government. GOCOs usually have significant capacity for production that industry is unwilling to maintain given historic fluctuations in demand. For example, in fiscal year 2000, the requirement for small caliber ammunition was approximately 275 million rounds, which increased by one billion in 2002 to support the wars is Iraq and Afghanistan; a fluctuation so sudden and significant that industry was not able to meet the requirement within capacity and time constraints. (See sidebar, “Ready to GOCO” for more information)
CULTURAL CHANGE IN MANUFACTURING
Next-generation ammunition will consist of bullets that increase ballistic and terminal performance while incorporating lightweight case technologies. The bullet and case technologies currently in testing use polymers or combinations of brass and stainless steel that have never before been mass produced. The lightweight technologies will minimize additional weight associated with legacy ammunition, but the existing Lake City manufacturing systems are not yet capable of manufacturing these new cases.
Most manufacturing processes at Lake City were developed before World War II, and well before the proliferation of computers and the internet. Much of the current manufacturing equipment uses mechanically-controlled processes, requiring deliberate re-engineering to adjust; a common manufacturing technology used in the 1940s when Lake City was established. Computers (programmable logic controllers) control modern manufacturing systems and are networked to enable statistical process control. Currently, “touch labor”— i.e., a Lake City employee—distributes propellant to the equipment that loads the projectiles into cases. Employees manually pour gunpowder down chutes that lead to the equipment that assembles bullets. Modernization will remove that touch labor from many processes and operations, thus reducing risk.
Delivering modern ammunition technologies will require a culture that embraces modernization and cutting-edge technologies, especially as we scale up production to the requisite volumes.
Other industries are far ahead of us when comparing manufacturing technologies, process efficiencies and safety. As we prepare to design a new facility, we are confronted with a long list of stringent regulations specific to establishing manufacturing capabilities on government installations, in addition to all industry standards. But if we are to align with industry, then we must capitalize on modern processes and infrastructure and when appropriate, challenge specific regulations that impede out ability to leverage industry best practices that are safe and efficient, and that contribute to manufacturing a quality product.
MANUFACTURING TECHNOLOGY OPPORTUNITIES
As we prepare for NGSW ammunition production, we have a unique opportunity to serve as a model for modernization across the spectrum of government-owned, contractor-operated ammunition manufacturing facilities. Some of the specific manufacturing processes and technologies we will implement are manufacturing process controls enabling greater flexibility within manufacturing processes.
We will implement computer-automated monitoring and on-the-fly fine tuning of manufacturing processes. This is an enormous leap in manufacturing capability from the current mechanically-controlled bullet assembly machines. We will streamline the order fulfillment process to build in scheduling efficiencies not currently realized at Lake City. Manufacturing systems will incorporate the latest generation of automation processes and systems for raw materials handling and delivery, as well as work in process and finished goods.
We will implement fully autonomous delivery and handling of all explosive materials, increasing workforce safety by separating mass explosives from people. New manufacturing systems will support iterative process improvements. Most importantly, to tie all systems together, we will use open network architecture coupled with flexible systems to enable iteration and incorporation of technologies in the future. When complete, this will be the most modern high-volume ammunition manufacturing facility in the world.
ACCELERATED FIELDING TO MEET ARMY MODERNIZATION PRIORITIES
Accelerated fielding drives a need to deliver next-generation ammunition and legacy ammunition simultaneously within the current facility and manufacturing capacity. This is our opportunity to challenge the culture and integrate modern manufacturing technologies in conjunction with ammunition development efforts. We are developing an interim production capability that will meet initial low-quantity ammunition delivery requirements. This will be a collaborative effort with industry partners to deliver the Army’s newest small-caliber ammunition. In concert with manufacturing industry experts, we will develop flexible manufacturing systems while leveraging opportunities to modernize existing equipment.
INFLUENCED BY DIVERSE INDUSTRIES
One of the most challenging events associated with high-volume production of a new technology is scaling up from prototyping to full-rate production. A great example of rapid scaling is Operation Warp Speed, the push to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.
After identifying a viable vaccine, the greatest challenge for industry was the transition from research and development to production and distribution. There are many parallels, from raw material quality control to management of work in progress to final production, packaging and distribution. One unique challenge in vaccine manufacturing is environmental control, a consideration when manufacturing polymer-cased ammunition, as well. Temperature needs to be maintained for raw material consistency and work in progress, and moisture may affect plastic molding and adhesive operations.
Lake City Army Ammunition Plant is critical to delivering small-caliber ammunition to warfighters and merits investment in modernization. The next-generation ammunition modernization project is our opportunity to add new manufacturing capabilities that rival industry efficiencies while delivering affordable, cutting-edge ammunition without disrupting the current state of manufacturing readiness.
For more information, go to the JPEO A&A website at https://jpeoaa.army.mil/jpeoaa or contact the JPEO A&A Public Affairs Office at (973) 724-2990.
MAJ. JAMIE MICHEL, a basic branch infantry officer, serves as the assistant product manager for Small Caliber Ammunition within Project Manager Maneuver Ammunition Systems and is the project lead for the Next Generation Small Caliber Ammunition transition to production. He holds an MBA from Rutgers University and a B.A. in political science from Sacred Heart University. He has been in the acquisition workforce for four years and is Level II certified in program management and contracting.