Creating First-of-A-Kind Products—and Anything Else

Oct. 13, 2021
A can-do attitude and skill at machining, welding, cutting, bending, sawing, grinding, punching, melting, and joining metal … make the Y-12 National Security Complex a one-of-a-kind manufacturer.

The U.S. government has a hidden resource: The Y‑12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., part of the Dept. of Energy’s Nuclear Security Enterprise, is a manufacturing facility that helps to ensure a safe, effective U.S. nuclear weapons deterrent. It also retrieves and stores nuclear materials, fuels the U.S. naval reactors, and performs complementary work for other government and private-sector entities.

The can-do attitude of engineers, technicians, and craftspeople working at the Y-12 National Security Complex is legendary – perhaps best exemplified by the men and women of General Manufacturing Operations there.

“If it can’t be done anywhere else, bring it to us. We can do it,” claimed Wendell Laughter, a production specialist with 16 years of experience in the Y-12 workshop known as Alpha 1. “We’re a one-stop-shop.”

We Do It All. Well, Almost.

GMO sheet metal fabricators, machinists, and welders cut, bend, saw, grind, punch, melt, and join metal into the desired shape and design. Using manual and computerized numerical-control lathes and mills, they work with nickel, bronze, lead, aluminum, titanium, copper, and many other metals, plastics, composites, graphite, and special materials. GMO’s skilled craftspeople can machine and fabricate parts weighing several tons with tolerances to one ten-thousandths of an inch.

“If you need a component or piece of tooling made, modified, or repaired, we can most likely help,” added GMO production-support manager Erik Swanson. “Basically, if you dream it, we can make it.” 

The Y-12 National Security Complex is operated by Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC under a contract with the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration—together with the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Tex. CNS member companies include Bechtel National, Inc.; Leidos, Inc.; ATK Launch Systems, Inc.; and SOC LLC. Pantex and Y-12 are key facilities in the U.S. Nuclear Security Enterprise, and CNS performs its work with a focus on performance excellence and the imperatives of safety, security, zero defects, and delivery as promised.

“We create the specialty tooling, fixtures, and shipping containers for all of Y-12’s weapons programs,” according to John Sarratt, a production support specialist. “We also have about 200 or so walk-in work orders a year when things break down across the site, everything from unique ductwork to filter crushers to door handles that resolve safety actions.” 

Recently, a gear failed in an on-site transformer critical for plant operations. There was no clear path forward on how to get it fixed. The gear would be difficult to procure, if it could be procured at all, so the Y-12 customer brought the broken gear to GMO.

“We didn’t have drawing specifications for the part, only the piece itself,” Laughter said. “Our folks were able to not only recreate the piece and make critical spares for potential future failures but also to turn it around quickly.”

In addition to its Y-12 work, GMO has many external customers. For years, Nuclear Security Enterprise sites (including the Pantex Plant and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California), federal agencies, and industry have been sending work orders to Y-12, for it to do what could not be done.

Sometimes GMO’s work shows up in celebrated tools and machinery, such as the first propulsor for the U.S. Navy’s Seawolf-class nuclear submarine—built by GMO. The Navy/Y‑12 prototyping team responded to more than 1,000 propulsor design changes in less than four years.

Skill of the Craft

Even with the most advanced machines in the world, it is the skill of the craftspeople that makes GMO especially adept at creating first-of-a-kind products.

“We work on a variety of one-off parts, so we have a lot of opportunities to learn and grow in our craft without being confined to working on the same part or job over and over,” explained machinist Ashley Dawson, who joined Y-12’s apprenticeship program in 2013.

In Y-12’s defense work, the manufacturing shop must follow technical procedures. When pioneering new products, however, craftspeople simply go by sketches and drawings.

“Working in Alpha 1 allows a machinist to become well rounded within our craft, given that we are able to machine our parts, for the most part, without being confined to a procedure,” said Mike Trexler, also a machinist from the 2013 apprenticeship program. “Unlike a production shop, we seldom run multiples of the same part so we’re always making different parts and using different materials.”

Made in the USA

In addition to a can-do attitude and skill, Y-12’s manufacturing craftspeople take unmistakable pride in their workmanship and the site’s national security mission.

“We all take ownership and pride in our work,” according to supervisor Ray Ivey, who’s spent most of his 52-year career at Y-12 in Alpha 1. “We work together as a team to get the job done safely and with quality, and this is what’s made us successful.”

Machinist Kent Sellars agreed that Alpha 1 turns out better products because of the team approach to their national security work. “To be able to share in this incredible depth of talent and experience is a great honor,” he said. “The importance of our national security mission drives me to want to be the best machinist I can be. This allows me to serve each day as a working patriot in ensuring that each assignment is completed within the desired scope of the design and forethought of each project.”

Skilled Trades Needed

The Y-12 National Security Complex needs a skilled and trained workforce to fill upcoming skilled trades jobs. “For more than 75 years, Y-12 has been successful because of the exceptional talent and tremendous contributions of its employees,” explained educational outreach coordinator Kristin Waldschlager. “With more than 5,000 employees, today’s Y-12 workforce has a median age of 49. In 2025, 43% of today’s Y‑12 workforce will be retirement eligible.”

Heidi Spurling is a Communications writer for Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC. Contact Communications at tel. 865-574-1640.