FRCE employees post for a group photo following an award ceremony

A cross-disciplinary team of Fleet Readiness Center East facilities maintenance personnel, production artisans and engineers received recognition for working together to implement a workaround for a malfunctioning automated welding machine, delivering results that produced a cost avoidance for the fleet that could add up to more than $4.9 million. FRCE artisans use the machine – the only one of its kind in the world – to weld F402 combustion chambers for the engine that powers the AV-8B Harrier, flown by the U.S. Marine Corps.

FRCE teamwork, ingenuity produce millions in cost avoidance

The Fleet Readiness Center East workforce rarely encounters a problem that can’t be solved through teamwork, innovation and a little bit of elbow grease.

A cross-disciplinary team of facilities maintenance personnel, production artisans and engineers proved this true when an automated welding machine for F402 engine combustion chambers – the only one of its kind in the world – started malfunctioning earlier this year. The team worked together for several weeks to implement a workaround, delivering results that produced a cost avoidance for the fleet that could add up to more than $4.9 million.

The F402 engine powers the AV-8B Harrier, a vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, and FRCE is the only facility in the world that possesses the ability to weld these critical components, said Daniel Gillman, head of the Metals Branch in the depot’s Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Production Department. In the combustion chamber, fuel is burned to heat compressed air that is then pushed out through the Harrier’s exhaust system to power and maneuver the aircraft. An engine cannot function without one, and FRCE had orders due for three. Another three are due back out to the fleet by the end of the fiscal year, with more in the queue to follow.

“There are some fleet exchange assets available in the supply chain, but with a turn-in they cost $330,000,” Gillman explained. Purchasing these assets to supply the three combustion chambers due out would cost the fleet almost $1 million. To fill the full order of six chambers due by the end of the fiscal year, purchases would exceed $1.9 million.

The Metals Branch contacted FRCE’s Facility and Plant Maintenance Division for assistance. Initially, the facilities team contacted the original equipment manufacturer for service, but with pandemic-related travel restrictions in place, the lead time required for contracting the service call and a lack of available parts, it soon became clear a temporary workaround would be needed to get the machine running before reinforcements could arrive.

“Our guys were tasked to keep it going, and it took a lot of effort to maintain this piece of equipment,” said Richie Simons, head of the Equipment and Utilities Branch. “The team spent a lot of hard days doing a lot of hard work, solving problems and working through issues to make the welder run so we can make combustion chambers.

“This type of work is pretty much an everyday thing for us,” he continued. “Our function in this shop is to keep production going so they can provide service to the fleet. That’s the key thing: We keep the equipment running so production can do their part to get products back out to the fleet.”

The machine runs an automated program to weld a 360-degree ring around the combustion chamber, and was running on the wrong power settings and failing to stop at the programmed location. The overrun resulted in overheating and burning through the combustion chamber, which rendered the components unusable, Gillman said. 

The Equipment Maintenance shop is accustomed to working with the specialized, one-off pieces of equipment used to perform the specific functions required by aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul, said shop supervisor Nathaniel Phillips. Much of the equipment at FRCE supports legacy aircraft like the AV-8B, which means the equipment itself is often older, as well.

“This is what we do day in and day out,” Phillips said. “We support more than 10,000 pieces of equipment within this facility, and we work to maintain a lot of aging equipment. Our guys did a great job of troubleshooting and fine tuning this equipment so we can run a production product.”

The effort required a great deal of collaboration between different areas of the organization, he noted.

“We don’t just send over one person to go fix the equipment,” Phillips explained. “We have to work with engineering, and our welding shop here in maintenance, for example. We have a lot of branches in the maintenance department that all work to make these efforts come together, and there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.”

Additional coordination between entities in other departments at FRCE – including engineering, production and procurement – added more players to the team working on solving the issue. But even with the strong teamwork, solving the problem wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen quickly, Simons noted.

“This wasn’t a one-day thing – the team spent weeks on this machine,” Simons explained. “It took a lot of testing and fine tuning, and testing some more. We went through a lot of dummy parts during this process and, once those tested out, we had engineering come over and give the blessing for us to run actual aircraft parts.”

After about two months of fine-tuning the welder’s gains and programming on the facilities and engineering side, and the artisans fine-tuning the temporary process on the production side, the team was able to make the machine produce a quality weld approved by engineering.

“It’s an automated welder that we’re kind of running in a semi-automated state,” Phillips said. “They have to change some of the programs for each fixture that they run, and the artisans have to do some manual stops. Our group has to manage any fine tuning of the drives, so it’s a real team effort to keep this welder going.”

With engineering approval in hand, the production artisans began cranking out the items needed now and started tackling future workload, as well.

“When they got this machine fixed, we needed six more combustion chambers to meet our fiscal year 2021 goal, and we actually ended up producing every one we had in delay and more,” Gillman said. “As of today, we’ve completed a total of 15. Once we could produce a quality product, our artisans kept going. They were working 10 hours a day, six days a week to get these combustion chambers done while the machine is working.

“Once we gave the artisans what they needed, they were able to do what they do best and get the job done,” he added.

All told, FRCE has now produced 15 of the chambers using the workaround; if purchased, the components would have cost the Navy $4.95 million.

“The hard work and diligence and persistence of maintenance, engineering and the artisans working hand in hand, evaluating and testing, really paid off,” Gillman said. “It took a lot of collaboration to get everybody on the same page and to get a product that passes muster out the door, but everyone stuck to it. Nobody gave up, and the effort was successful.”

According to Gillman, Phillips and Simons, much of the success can be attributed to the increased communication driven by daily “tier meetings” that brings issues affecting production into focus for all key stakeholders.

Phillips said the increased visibility and understanding provided through the tier meetings allows his team to more effectively prioritize their workload, to the benefit of production shops.

“That’s what should be driving this, and that’s what’s most important: What’s holding up production from selling products?” Phillips explained.

Gillman said the meetings, a reflection of the depot’s transition to a mission-aligned organization, have led not only to better communication, but to more productivity, as well. 

“Used to, you would do your own thing, and sit back and you’d wait on maintenance to do their own thing, but now we have a collaboration with them,” Gillman said. “They’re vested in production now, just like the rest of the support elements here, and that’s all part of the realignment.

“Before, you were in your own little ‘gemba,’ as our commanding officer likes to mention – your place,” he continued. “But now our place is growing to where a lot of the team members and the support elements are there, and we're getting a lot more accomplished.”

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