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Parts producers: Tinker’s machine shops are invaluable

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- To say four machine shops within the 76th Commodities Maintenance Group are important is an understatement. They are essential; they are the "manufacturers of last resort."

Tool and Die, Numerical Control, General Machining and Precision Grinding produce parts and tooling from raw materials when the items can't be purchased elsewhere.

"Our machinists are truly maintenance artists and force multipliers," said Col. Herbert Phillips, 76th Commodities Maintenance Group commander. "With their skills and experience, coupled with our professional support personnel, they make the impossible, possible."

Employing 140 machinists -- plus nearly 340 personnel in support jobs -- in three shifts, the four shops work to meet their customers' demands.

Following a 2008 T-38 crash at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, that left two pilots dead, investigators discovered the aileron actuator lever was a contributing factor. Officials asked Tinker for help and the first 50 levers were produced within three weeks of when the order was placed. The entire order of 800 was finished ahead of deadline three months later.

"Our customers depend upon the 76th CMXG and these very shops to get aircraft back into the air, or get equipment restored to service," said Michael Wenzel, 76th CMXG deputy director. "Without them, our aging weapon systems could be grounded."

When a part is needed, the customer -- another shop within the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, installation or weapon system -- will contact the organization's planners. The planners examine the aircraft blueprint and data by the original equipment manufacturer to calculate the necessary steps to manufacture an item.

Once decided, raw material is ordered from a vendor and the project prioritized. The size and complexity of the project will determine the finish date.

Danny Tornello, manufacture machining section chief for the four shops, said the General Machine Shop turns out 50 to 60 temporary workloads a month, but the parts produced in that shop tend to be smaller and take less time. In the computerized Numerical Control Shop, the parts take longer as they are typically larger and more complex.

The Numerical Control Shop programs the large manufacturing equipment to cut a specific tool path using five different axes and various tooling. Numerical Control Shop, General Machine and Precision Grinding are responsible for most manufacturing. Whereas, in the tool and die section, machinists go out to the aircraft and perform work on site and use optical tooling to build and certify fixtures. In the shop, machinists manufacture complex tooling and fixtures.

"We also go on temporary duty assignments and do this around the world," Mr. Tornello said. "We've been to Singapore; Kadena, Japan; probably every state of the 50."

Mr. Tornello said his personnel must contend with the ever-changing technology as a constant challenge. His personnel have to keep up-to-date with the changing software, keeping up with the cost of tooling and keeping up with budget demands. And, sometimes, the shops have to face trial and error as they experiment making new parts.

But, in the past year, the shops have increased their workload and welcomed roughly 20 new hires.

"There are not many companies out there that do what we do," Mr. Tornello said. "People should know there's a facility here that can make anything they need. We keep the warfighter flying; no matter what it is, how long it takes, we have the ability, people and technology to produce parts."