Rachael Scarborough King

Star Staff Writer
Published: June 28, 2006

BYNUM – Inside the giant hangar at Anniston Army Depot known as Building 400 are rows of armored vehicles: tanks, recovery vehicles, combat earthmovers and bridge launchers. Outside, the thousands of parts and pieces used to rebuild the machines sit in haphazard-looking stacks, covering the surrounding tarmac.

As the war in Iraq stretches into its fourth year, the depot is overflowing with equipment small and large, from pistols to tanks, in need of repair.

“I’ve been here since 1981, and I’ve never seen as much stuff,” said Joan Gustafson, the depot’s spokeswoman. “There is stuff everywhere.”

At the Nichols Industrial Complex in the eastern part of the depot, small lanes for cars, trucks and fork lifts wind around the piles of parts waiting to be put to use. Near the main road approaching the complex, dozens of tanks and turrets on their way into the shops line the train tracks.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war the depot’s work load has doubled, said Paul Harper, general manager of production operations.

“As you watch the news on CNN and so forth, everything you see that the soldiers are using … just about everything that rolls and shoots on the battlefield comes through here for refurbishment,” Harper said.

The depot serviced 1,725 vehicles and 58,846 small weapons in the 2006 fiscal year, versus 597 vehicles and 17,013 arms in 2003. In 2006 949 of the vehicles and 54,601 of the arms being worked on were back from the Middle East for refurbishment; in 2003 those numbers were 56 vehicles and zero small arms.

The workload increase has led managers to take a number of steps to speed production. They have hired more employees, who now are working two 12-hour shifts six days a week. They also have changed the method of working on vehicles, moving to an assembly-line style of production.

Patti Sparks, chief of the Enterprise Excellence Division, said that when the war started, the depot had to find ways to stretch scarce resources. Now, with the ever-increasing amount of equipment passing through the depot, the goal is to improve quality and productivity.

“We want to reduce the number of man-hours that it takes to produce these things … (so we will be) getting a quicker turnover, getting it back to the soldier in the field,” Sparks said. “You also save money. You do as much work as you can and get it back out into the field as quickly as you can.”

The depot began operating as a storage facility in 1942 and is now known as “The Tank Rebuild Center of the World,” according to its official Web site. It employs about 2,600 people, with a payroll of $120 million and an operating budget of $260 million.

The depot has had decades of experience fixing up vehicles to send back to combat zones. But now, the tanks are coming from and going to an area with vastly different conditions than northeast Alabama.

One contributing factor in the current workload is the harsh environment in Iraq.

“With the heat, and especially the fine powdery dust, anything you put in those conditions it’s hard on that equipment because (the sand) can get into any crack and cause wear,” Harper said. “There is wear associated with those conditions, but by and large anything and everything that needs to be done to a vehicle, there’s not anything that’s coming to us that we can not repair.”

Harper said the depot gained experience in handling that kind of wear and tear during the Gulf War. Because of the desert conditions, Army units may send pieces of equipment back earlier than usual for smaller repairs.

“Equipment wears and deteriorates quicker under those kinds of conditions and requires maintenance earlier,” he said.

“What’s happening is that these vehicles are being run longer than their projected life was anticipated,” Gustafson said.

While the depot works with Army and Marine Corps engineers to develop new technology – for example, an updated bridging device is currently in the works – Harper said he is not aware of any changes that have been made specifically to deal with the harsh conditions in the Middle East.

“The work we do on them is very similar for our (other) customers,” he said. “There’s not anything that we’re doing on vehicles for war versus vehicles that we’re assigning to troops in other locations.”

The majority of the depot’s workload is the M1 Abrams Tank, said Process Optimization Manager Ted Law. It costs about $900,000 and takes about 62 days to completely overhaul an M1. That price is about 25 percent of what a brand-new M1 would cost.

Vehicles coming back from the Middle East arrive in a variety of conditions, Harper said.

“It depends on how old the equipment is, how it was used and what the customer would like us to do to them,” he said.

The work to be done on each vehicle is determined before it arrives at the depot and ranges from minor repairs to a complete refurbishment.

The first step in the process to totally overhaul a vehicle is disassembly. The pieces of equipment enter one end of Building 400, “the hub of operations for all our vehicle programs,” Law said. The turret or cab has already been removed; workers then strip away the track, engine, transmission and road wheel arms.

“Pretty soon there’ll be nothing left but literally an empty hull, an empty shell, and then it will start going through the processes,” Gustafson, the spokeswoman, said.

After disassembly, work starts to rebuild the vehicle. During this process, pieces are moved down the assembly line by huge overhead cranes. The procedure looks almost like building with Lego blocks: At each successive stage, workers follow a blueprint to add a set number of parts until the tank is completed.

Eventually, “we can drive the vehicle out these back doors,” Law, the process-optimization manager, said. The equipment then is tested on an outdoor track, the turret is reattached, and it is ready for the final step of painting and stenciling. There are more than 8,000 components that come off and go back on an M1 Abrams Tank.

The vehicles end up “better than new,” Gustafson said, because modern technology is applied to equipment like the M1, which was designed and built in the early 1980s.

In order to increase productivity since the start of the war, managers at the depot such as Law and Sparks have challenged workers to come up with ways to improve safety, quality and output. Sparks’ division holds 10 to 20 events each month in the smaller shops and in Building 400 to brainstorm new methods.

Once the new methods have been implemented, they are celebrated with a ceremony attended by the depot’s commander.

Sparks and Harper emphasize that it is the workers who are coming up with solutions.

“The best ideas always come from the people doing the job,” said Harper, the general manager of production operations. “Since the people in the process recognize and make the changes, then they own those changes.”

He added: “It allows us to do the same amount of work with less time and less people.”

By making these types of continuous process improvements, the Depot can avoid “having to go out and hire 1,500 more people that we would just have to let go when this war effort is over,” Sparks said.

The biggest challenge since the start of the war has not been the condition of equipment coming back from the war zone but the huge increase in the amount of work, Harper said.

“We have a work force that is second to none,” he said. “Ever since the surge associated with the war has begun, our work force has come through in accomplishing everything the Army has asked them to do.”

Members of the depot’s civilian work force even volunteer for 179-day “tours” to Camp Anaconda in Iraq, where they work on vehicles that need refurbishment in the field. There is never a shortage of volunteers, Gustafson said.

“Alabama (in addition to) the depot is a very patriotic state,” she said.

An electronic sign at the depot entrance reminds workers, “Our Soldiers Depend on You” and cautions them to drive safely: “We Want You Back.” Harper said the work force has handled the difficulties associated with the war.

“The challenge has been to be able to accommodate a steady increase in the amount of work, do it within cost and when the soldiers ask for it, and it has to be a high-quality product because lives depend on it,” Harper said. “That has been in general terms the biggest challenge, but we’ve been able to meet that challenge.”

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