A hundred years ago, Rock Island Arsenal workers handled howitzer shells in Building 250.
They loaded them onto trains and sent them to gunners in the field during World War I.
Not long after, the Gothic Revival building, tucked away off the main drag on Arsenal Island, was turned into a machine shop.
Over the years, the century-old structure fell into disuse; it was mothballed after World War II.
Today, things have changed. Inside this building, notable for its high ceilings and dozens of windows, is the U.S. Army's Center for Excellence in Advanced Manufacturing.
It’s a rather grand title for what, at the moment, is essentially a small production lot — where only about a half dozen people work
However, if it’s up to Randl Besse, the deputy project manager, this place will play a much bigger role for the Army in the future.
"The vision is we will be the source for all things additive manufacturing," he says.
A grand vision, indeed. But, then, the equipment needs of the U.S. Army are gargantuan. The individual pieces that make up the guns, tanks, vehicles and the countless machines that allow the Army to function number in the millions. And a big part of the Arsenal’s job, as it has always been — as it was back when those howitzer shells were being loaded — is to make sure the soldier in the field gets those parts right on time.
It's no different now, except inside Building 250 they’re now making parts using something called additive manufacturing, a three decade-old process that is gaining prominence in the U.S. military.
Additive manufacturing uses 3D printers to assemble layer after layer after layer of raw material to form a usable product.
In an office in Building 250, a table holds an array of parts. A trigger for a weapon, an ammunition feeder for a machine gun. There are others.
Additive manufacturing is distinct from the more traditional manufacturing that’s been done here — fashioning a part out of a mass of raw material, or what’s often known as "subtractive manufacturing."
The advantages, officials say, is this new process can produce parts cheaper and faster. The latter is the key. Soldiers shouldn’t have to wait on a part, and 3D printers have the potential to be a big help with that. (Some printers have even been shipped out with units so they can print parts in the field. A Marine Corps unit in California last year actually 3D printed a concrete bridge.)
Scaling up additive manufacturing in order for it to play a significant role in the Army’s organic industrial base is much of what’s being done in Building 250.
A year ago, the Army invested $20 million to purchase 21 of the 3D printers that now are spread out inside Building 250. Where once the clang of the machine shop ruled, now parts are being assembled inside these printers, which run silently and often with little need for people to monitor their progress.
One machine last week was building a part related to a helicopter. We were told it would take about 100 hours to finish, a fraction of the time than if done by conventional means. And the machine needed little tending.
Like much technological innovation, this would appear to have some significant implications for workforce needs. At the same time, the work of the advanced manufacturing lab, and its success at implementing lower-cost, faster-produced parts into the Army’s organic industrial base, would no doubt add significant value to the Army installation here. And it is far from clear what the workforce might look like in the future. Officials with the Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center say they expect 3D printing to work alongside conventional manufacturing.
Asked what he sees a decade down the road, Besse paints a picture of a thriving Building 250. "It’s humming. We’ve got three bays full of equipment," he says, "we’ve got people all over the place printing parts. I would imagine that we’re packaging our own parts on site, we’re printing, pulling, post processing, packing, shipping — in and out — day in, day out."
Perhaps. But there’s a lot of work to be done in the meantime, much of it complex, like proving that the parts made by this process are as dependable as those made conventionally; convincing the Army personnel who make purchasing decisions to buy the parts; trying to help some of those same people find the Rock Island Arsenal on a map.
It might be surprising, given the Arsenal's integral part in our community's heritage, and our economy, just how little is known about the installation outside the Quad-Cities.
For the moment, though, the half dozen or so people who work here still are laboring to realize the full potential of this technology. The facility, we were told, is still in the "crawling" stage. Walking and running are still down the road.
The entire Quad-Cities should be very interested in where that road leads.