In an industry that routinely deals with dangerous, volatile substances, automation could greatly increase both safety and efficiency.
The munitions industry is unlike many other branches of manufacturing. Many manufacturers require safety precautions, but most aren’t working with products designed to explode. Many industries produce equipment that lives depend on, but most of them aren’t building equipment that still has to function as intended while withstanding the extreme conditions of a war zone. And while many companies are looking for greener, cleaner manufacturing methods, most of them aren’t doing so with the additional pressure of international accords and government oversight.
In short, advanced robotics have much to offer all manufacturers, but few industries stand to benefit more from an increased integration of this technology than munitions manufacturers. And while the aforementioned considerations are all factors that set munitions manufacturing apart from other sectors, there is one area in which these industries are the same: the need to manufacture more products on faster timetables.
Here’s a closer look at how advanced robotics can provide the solutions munitions manufacturers are looking for.
- Scalable, high-volume manufacturing.
The U.S. support for Ukraine has taken a toll on national stockpiles for several critical inventories, especially 155 mm ammunition shells and Javelin missiles. Currently, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with roughly a million 155 mm shells and 8,500 Javelins, and estimates are that it could take six years to rebuild that stockpile, assuming no further depletions.
That’s a long timeline, and many variables are at play that could affect it. One such variable is the capacity of American manufacturers to increase production, and in this advanced automation can help at every stage, from portioning to magazine loading to palletization and shipping. Robotic systems can be especially flexible, as robotic arms can perform multiple tasks using a smaller factory footprint. A manufacturing system using a modular design can even be duplicated, expanding a manufacturer’s capacity as demand increases.
2. Safer ammunition production.
In 2017, a worker at an Army-owned munitions manufacturing plant died when the tetrazene he had been scooping by hand with a spatula exploded, killing him and injuring several others. The tragedy helped shine a light on exactly how outdated many manufacturing plants had become and was motivation for the Army to reevaluate production facilities and invest in upgrades.
The reality is that there is no reason workers ever need to be near explosive substances or dangerous chemicals, as robots can replace humans in these settings. Robots can assist in other safety-related measures as well, such as lifting heavy supplies, detecting when human operators have entered a workspace and slowing down or stopping when they get too close, or monitoring an environment for signs of anything dangerous.
- Automated inspection.
Quality control measures for manufacturing no longer have to rely on mechanical dummy systems or the vigilance of human inspectors. Instead, advanced visioning systems can perform the same visual quality checks that humans used to perform, but faster and with less error caused by fatigue or inattention. Robotic arms can even remove products that don’t pass inspection at the point of failure, so that they don’t continue through downstream processes.
Industry 4.0 technologies also allow for more effective tracing of products as they are in process, so that manufacturers can have greater insight into their output. Production data collection can also make it possible to trace a failed or defective product back to the point of origin and perform more targeted recalls if a problem is detected in the field.
4. Disassembly for munitions recycling.
Much of the recycling industry has focused on processes such as sorting bins of mixed materials or inventing new ways to repurpose recycled products into reusable materials. However, munitions recycling offers other challenges. Rather than taking whatever can be solicited from public donations, large munitions stockpiles already exist, and are often fairly uniform. The challenge isn’t “how to separate paper from plastic,” but “how to safely deactivate tens of thousands of unused missiles from a specific storage facility in time to meet an international treaty deadline.”
Robots are a crucial tool for solving these problems in two ways. First, the large volume of munitions that require disassembly make automation not just economically viable, but practically necessary. U.S. munitions stockpiles will not keep indefinitely. Many of these stockpiled weapons (such as chemical weapons or anti-personnel landmines) are banned or restricted and may have a timeline by which they need to be destroyed. Others contain materials that will corrode or grow unstable over time, while long-term storage raises the risk of a chemical leak or an unplanned explosion. As such, managed munitions recycling as stockpiles reach an expiry date is likely to remain a necessary part of the overall manufacturing lifecycle for years to come. The volume of these recycling requirements makes them a prime candidate for automation.
Second, robots do not need everything they handle to be perfectly uniform in order to perform a routine task. Recycling products is never as neat and organized as manufacturing them in the first place. Products can develop bulges or become warped or dented. An irregular shape can throw off an automated process, while deformations can also be signs that the munition has become unstable and dangerous to handle. Robots can visually identify irregular munitions items, make adjustments in their positioning to avoid a blockage in the production flow, and perform the most dangerous decommissioning tasks, keeping workers out of harm’s way.
Contact Eagle to learn more about our robotics capabilities.
If you are a manufacturer in the munitions industry looking for a way to scale your production, contact us. We not only have experience designing the most complex systems in worker-safe environments, but an on-time delivery rate of 97%, which is at the top of our industry. Contact us today to learn more.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI