PROMONTORY -- ATK employees put their heads together and came up with hundreds of ways to cut the time it takes to make a rocket booster nearly in half.
And on Tuesday, executives for ATK and NASA -- the company's biggest customer -- high-fived employees for their cost-cutting measures and efficiency upgrades that better guarantee ATK's future in a day of slashed budgets and smaller payrolls.
About 150 employees, representing all aspects of ATK, gathered to accept the applause and to hear reassurances that their efforts make ATK stronger. In this time of tight budgets, said ATK Space Launch Division General Manager Charles Precourt, "we've accepted the reality that we have to embrace change" and "transform our business and culture." When employees were asked for ideas, he added, "the outcome was astounding."
The nearly 400 changes implemented range from the small -- pinpointing a redundant procedure, that saves a couple of hours of labor -- to the mindboggling. On this page would be the example of one segment that was moved 47 times between buildings during manufacturing; now it's down to seven.
Overall, the improvements are expected to reduce the rocket booster's total assembly time by 46 percent. Considering that it had taken about a year to make a booster, that's millions of dollars in savings, said Precourt.
The improvements were "all bottom-up generated from the actual operators on the floor," he added.
"Those folks were able to tell us, 'This doesn't make sense any more.' "
Alex Priskos, the Space Launch System booster manager for NASA, agreed. He acknowledged the difficulty of changing procedures that have been done for decades, adding that "the hardest thing ... is to look in the mirror" and make a self-assessment.
NASA analyzed each suggestion, he said, "and with the due diligence and creativity that was exhibited, my hat's off to you."
Also on hand to offer congratulations was Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"You guys are a big part of getting us back into space," he told the gathering. Behind him stood the huge center-aft segment, one of five, for the rocket booster. This component, like many that ATK is refurbishing, has already been into space.
ATK described the rocket booster it's readying as "the largest and most powerful solid rocket booster ever built for flight." This motor, called Qualification Motor-1, will be tested in spring 2013, paving the way for NASA's Space Launch System, which will allow payloads and spacecraft to be launched above Earth's orbit.
A second booster motor will be tested in 2014, with 2017 projected as the year it heads into space, said Jim Nichols, ATK vice president of operations.
Precourt said ATK gave employees what amounted to a big suggestion box, requesting ideas for improvements in what's called the Value Stream Mapping system, which follows production from the raw materials stage to the finished booster. On Tuesday, Precourt, Nichols and Priskos showed off some of the changes.
In the insulation work center, for instance, eliminating an unnecessary procedure cut two weeks off the motor's production time and saved 176
labor hours, as well as $9,300 in annual maintenance and calibration costs.
In the nozzle components fabrication area, a change in the way the aluminum housings sent from the Clearfield complex are washed will result in a savings of $50,000 per motor.
In "one of the biggest hitters," 12 weeks of production time was erased when workers stopped using X-rays to check nozzle components for defects and instead went to an ultrasound system, said nozzle production leader Mark Pond. The elimination of developing and reading the X-ray film for these large pieces cut 2,000 labor hours down to 10, he said.
"We couldn't keep operating the way we were; we knew we had to do something substantial," said Priskos, who is based at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "If you put it in context, those 400 changes far surpass the number of changes we made on the shuttle. You can go back 10 years, and you probably wouldn't see that number of changes. It's a huge thing for this culture and this company."