Making innovation19 September, 2014 / Articles
The hubs of advanced manufacturing will be the economic drivers of the future because innovation increasingly depends on production expertise.
Visitors to the Crosspointe Rolls-Royce facility in Prince George County, Virginia, have to don safety glasses and steel-tipped shoes, just as they would at any traditional factory. But then things start to look different. Past the cubicles filled with programmers and support staff sits a 140,000-square-foot factory with spotless white concrete floors, bright lighting, surprisingly quiet equipment, and very few human beings.
Opened in 2011, Crosspointe is the kind of factory that makes a good backdrop to a political speech about advanced manufacturing, as President Barack Obama knew when he arrived less than a year later. It’s global: the U.S. operations center of a U.K. company, it uses titanium forgings from Scotland, Germany, or the United States; shapes them into fan disks; and, after milling, polishing, and testing, ships them off to England, Germany, or Singapore. Once there, each disk will become one of 10,000 parts in a typical engine.
It’s also highly automated: $1.5 million machines made by DMG Mori Seiki do the initial milling of the disks, following steps directed by Siemens software with a minimum of human interference. On a day in early summer, eight machines were being monitored by three operators. Computer screens in front of the machine displayed instructions in pictures and text, flashing warnings when a part has not met specs or the machine needs to be serviced. Later an automated measurement machine with a probe on the end would spend eight hours inspecting 1,000-plus distinct dimensions of the part. For the next 25 years, Rolls-Royce will keep data on each part, starting with exactly how it was made. Sensors in the engine will track how the engine and its parts are holding up, and maintenance and flight data will be carefully recorded.
It’s not just pristine floors, scarce workers, and a global network that make Crosspointe emblematic of manufacturing today. It’s also the ecosystem surrounding the facility. Just down the road is the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a research center