Sandia LabNews

Concurrent design and manufacturing attains milestone

Concurrent Design and Manufacturing program completes its second year of failure-free weapon component deliveries

Here’s a little thought experiment for you.

Imagine you’re doing something innocuous, routine, humdrum. Let’s say you’re mowing your lawn. Not too many things to remember in order to get it right:

  • Make sure there’s gas in the mower. Check.
  • Don’t strain your back when you pull the starter rope. Check.
  • Go back and forth in straight lines; keep oil in the machine; empty the clippings bag before it gets too full and chokes off the engine; watch your toes! Check, check, check, and check.

But here’s the catch: mow it without making any mistakes. Make sure everything — and that means everything — is done to perfection (your significant other just hates it when you clip the grass an eighth of an inch too short). You did it? No mistakes. Are you sure? Okay. Now do it again. And again. And again. In fact, do it 9,000 times — without ever making the slightest little error.

All of a sudden that simple job of mowing the lawn begins to sound a bit daunting.

All of which serves to highlight the scope of the achievement of the Product Realization Teams (PRTs) in Sandia’s Concurrent Design and Manufacturing program. The PRTs just celebrated the completion of a second year of failure-free delivery of thousands of components for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

And we’re not just talking about mowing the lawn here; we’re talking about the zero-defect delivery of some of the most complex devices ever contrived. That’s an impressive achievement in itself; what’s even more significant, says CDM Program Manager Cesar Lombana (14011), is that the program’s zero-failure-rate delivery of components has saved the nuclear weapons complex — that is, the taxpayers — millions of dollars. You see, every failure in a delivered component launches a Significant Finding Investigations, or SFI. As the SFIs mount up, so do the costs. It’s neither cheap nor easy to find out why a component designed to function flawlessly for years in the most lethal machines ever built has malfunctioned. So, the fewer SFIs the better.

The story of the CDM effort is a story of hard-won success. As Cesar notes, DOE’s decision in 1991 to close down some of its weapons production capability and fold those functions into Sandia (among other facilities) marked a full-circle return for the Labs.

In its early days, when it was still Z Division of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Sandia had a significant manufacturing role. The stockpile was small then, and the manufacturing was not unlike producing unique one-off pieces for very specialized devices.

After the Soviet Union developed its bomb and launched the Cold War arms race that occupied the subsequent 40 years, it became clear to US policy makers that an independent production capability — able to industrialize the weapons-making process — was going to be needed. The weapons industrial base grew to a scale capable of producing thousands of increasingly complex devices each year.

Now fast-forward to the other end of the Cold War era and the accompanying treaty-based agreements to limit and then reduce the size of the stockpile. DOE decides to ramp down the complex; under the new stockpile management paradigm the manufacturing requirements of a smaller stockpile would be transferred to Sandia and other facilities. (Los Alamos, Pantex, Savannah River, and Kansas City also received new manufacturing/product delivery roles.)

There was some skepticism in the complex as to whether the new approach would work. And early experience seemed to demonstrate that there was indeed, much to be skeptical about. Mistakes were made; the learning curve was steep. And you can be sure that there were a few old hands in the complex who were saying to themselves, "I told you so."

But realistically, DOE had no choice; there was no going back. The complex had to be scaled back, but without losing any functionality.

Sandia made a critical personnel choice at about this time: it brought in as manufacturing VP Lenny Martinez, a manufacturing top gun who earned his stripes at Digital Equipment Corporation when DEC was still a high-flyer in the high-tech sector.

Lenny knew manufacturing; studied it and savored its principles the way chess legend Gary Kasparov studies books on arcane end game strategy. He understood the special requirements of a high-consequence, low-volume, high-complexity manufacturing capability and launched steps to implement the capability at Sandia.

He hired key staff — eventually including such leaders as Kathleen McCaughey, John Sayre, Cesar Lombana, and others — established proven quality principles, and worked to ingrain them into the Labs’ manufacturing culture. He set expectations higher than even DOE’s own demanding requirements and rewarded success. Success came, but not without a fight.

Under the CDM approach, product realization teams work with (mostly) private vendors to produce Sandia-designed components to DOE/NNSA-established standards.

While not all of Sandia-supplied components fit the CDM model — notably neutron generators, and certain microelectronic components, which are actually manufactured at Sandia — most Sandia supplied components in the modern stockpile are produced through a design-to-buy approach, which is the heart of the CDM program.

There are 17 PRTs involved in Sandia’s Concurrent Design and Manufacturing effort, with responsibility for weapons components ranging from actuators, thermal and special batteries, to igniters, gas generators, capacitors, magnetics, frequency devices, and electronic components. These components, many previously manufactured by now-closed production agencies, are now concurrently designed and manufactured in a partnership among Sandia, manufacturers across the nation, and the remaining production agencies at Kansas City, Pantex, Savannah River, and Los Alamos. A separate product realization team coordinates the process for each component family. Since 1992, when the program started, the PRTs have overseen the delivery of more than 40,000 components.

Before it found ultimate success, however, the Sandia manufacturing effort hit its share of snags.

"There wasn’t a year between 1992 and 2000 where we didn’t have failures," says Cesar. "There are just so many ways that something can go wrong in components of the complexity we’re dealing with." Because of persistent problems, there appeared to be a chance that Sandia could lose its CDM manufacturing capability entirely — to Kansas City or some other facility.

"As a program," Cesar says,

"we simply weren’t as good as we could be."

With its very future on the line, he says, a commitment was made in the CDM program and among the PRTs: "We are going to be the best production program in the complex; we’re going to do things no one has ever done before. We will not accept product failures."

With the completion of a second year of failure-free delivery, the product realization teams have delivered on that commitment they made to themselves — and to Sandia.