Space Age

September 1, 2009
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Fabrico enhances product and process quality of liner for fighter pilot helmets.



The production of U.S. fighter pilot helmets is now as sophisticated as the helmets themselves. The Department of Defense’s new Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) enables pilots to direct on-board weapons with high accuracy against enemy aircraft while performing high-G-force aircraft maneuvers. The new JHMCS includes critical foam ear pad spacers, which were previously manufactured in a time-consuming manual process. Recently, Atlanta-based Fabrico, one of North America’s largest design and manufacturing firms specializing in flexible materials, took over production of these foam spacers. The company uses an automated process to perform crucial slitting, die-cutting, and lamination operations, which makes production faster and improves quality.

Foam Spacers Critical to JHMCS Performance

Currently used by U.S. fighter pilots, the JHMCS combines several different technologies for more effective combat operations. The system features a magnetic helmet-mounted tracker that determines the direction in which the pilot’s head is turned. To aim and fire a missile, pilots simply turn their heads in the direction of the target and press a switch on the flight controls.

In addition, the helmet system includes a miniature display that projects such data as altitude, air speed and target range onto the pilot’s visor. Pilots receive this information while remaining in the “heads-up” position during combat, allowing them to keep visual contact with a target.

To help ensure that JHMCS helmets remain comfortably positioned on pilots’ heads, Fabrico provides a set of ear-pad spacers that ship to the helmet manufacturer in a pre-assembled kit. These create a space between a helmet’s ear-pad cup and the inside surface of the helmet. The spacers are available in two different thicknesses, which can be mixed and matched to create a customized fit.

Manual Assembly: Costly and Time-Consuming

Each spacer consists of a piece of foam sandwiched between two pieces of Velcro® that attach the spacer to the helmet and the ear-pad cup. During the spacer manufacturing process, adhesives are used to attach the foam to the Velcro.

Previously, the spacers were assembled in a mostly manual process. Standing at a large table, workers cut large pieces of foam into 6-inch-wide strips. Then they removed Velcro from a reel, peeled the adhesive backing off the foam and Velcro, and pressed the materials together using a hand roller, with the adhesive sides facing each other. Next, Velcro was attached to the other side with glue and pressed on with the roller. When the materials were ready for die cutting, workers used a clicker press with a single die to cut out one spacer at a time.

This process was both labor-intensive and time-consuming. Seeking a better alternative, the manufacturer turned to Fabrico.

Converting the Process

Before spacer production could begin, Fabrico set up a process that would achieve manufacturing objectives. During this preliminary stage, manufacturing engineers determined the proper sequence of operations and the amount of time each operation required, as well as the equipment needed for the job. Key to the process was custom tooling used to die cut the foam into oval-shaped spacers. Produced with a tolerance of ±0.005 inch for the oval shape, the tooling was made to meet the exacting requirements of the job.

With plans and equipment in place, spacer production began. The Fabrico process includes several steps. First, the company buys the charcoal ester foam sheets needed for the job in 1/4- and 1/8-inch thicknesses to produce spacers of two different sizes. Next, foam sheets are spliced together and wound into a roll using a 60-inch-wide laminator. After this, workers use a tape slitter to cut the foam sheets into three-inch-wide strips with a tolerance of ±1/16 inch. Next, the three-inch strips are placed between adhesive-covered strips of Velcro measuring two inches wide. Finally, foam and Velcro are fed into a rotary die-cutting machine, which first laminates the materials and then cuts out multiple spacers in a single pass. The machine holds a tolerance of ±1/8 inch on the length of the finished product.

During production, Fabrico follows stringent quality-control procedures consistent with the helmet manufacturer’s ISO certification. For example, the firm uses a “double-check system” that calls for one qualified operator to set up a production process and a second operator to verify that the setup was done correctly.

When the manufacturing process is complete, finished products are supplied to the manufacturer in kit form. Each kit consists of two 1/4-inch-thick spacers and two 1/8-inch-thick units. Hundreds of these kits are delivered each month.

Benefits of Automation

The switch from manual to automated production offers many benefits. The automated process is much more repeatable, which dramatically reduces rejects. In addition, a consistent stream of high-quality products that meet all requirements is produced.

The automated process produces helmet spacers 80% faster than the previous process. It is also less costly, as it reduces assembly time. In addition, by shutting down its in-house spacer-manufacturing operation, the manufacturer has freed up a significant amount of space and labor that can now be devoted to other tasks. Fabrico also manages the inventory of all the components used to make the spacers.

Conclusion

OEMs who manufacture products from flexible materials can benefit from contracting with design and manufacturing firms that specialize in this type of work. These firms can replace cumbersome manual operations with efficient automated processes that speed up production and reduce costs. Some contract design and manufacturing firms also offer sophisticated programs that assist with inventory management. By eliminating in-house manufacturing operations and related inventory-management tasks that don’t fall in their areas of expertise, OEMs can devote space, labor, and other resources to core competencies that enhance their bottom line.

For more information, visit www.fabrico.com.

Velcro is a registered trademark of Velcro Industries B.V.


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