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IMMC's Plant Tour: 'We have powder in our blood'

April 1, 2001

10 Min Read
IMMC's Plant Tour: 'We have powder in our blood'

America's oldest gunmaker, the Remington Arms Co. Inc. (Ilion, NY), manufactured its first products, flintlock rifles, in 1816. Since then its name has become synonymous with quality worldwide, particularly among discerning collectors of hand-engraved sporting firearms. But the company source quoted in the headline above might well have been alluding to a different kind of powder than gunpowder, one that has become an equal source of pride in Ilion: metal powder. 

The quote is from a third-generation employee, Matthew M. Marley, operations manager for Remington Arms' Powder Metal Products Div. (PMPD). The company has been involved in captive and custom high-density powder metallurgy (P/M) since the 1940s, and in MIM since the 1970s. Remington Arms consolidated its P/M and MIM operations in Ilion in 1994. Overnight, PMPD became one of a select few suppliers able to offer the marketplace a full range of sintered metal solutions, while still supplying its own high-volume needs for tight-tolerance parts produced to exacting firearms specifications. 

Though MIM may be a relatively new chapter in this 185-year-old's history, Marley and his PMPD colleagues see to it that their company's name still means quality. Most of Remington Arms' key employees have put in more than 20 years. Some are multigenerational, like Marley, and many have relatives in the company. Experience is a core competency. "We knew the PMPD had to go out for ISO and QS," Marley recalls. "Our quality manager, Ronald M. George, made it painless. We got it all done in about 18 months." 

Using high-caliber materials development, design, manufacturing, and QC systems, it has built one of the world's leading MIM operations. PMPD's growth may exceed 30 percent this year. You can browse the Remington Gun Museum off the lobby on the way out. Let's tour. 

The Big Picture 
Our tour guide is Maryann Wright, PMPD's engineering supervisor. Wright is a recognized MIM specialist who's been with the company since 1982. She chairs the MPIF committee that recently produced the latest edition of the MPIF's materials standards for MIM parts (see story, p. 13). As she escorts us past the museum, she shares some recent company history, including the termination of Remington Arms' 60-year relationship with DuPont in 1993. 

"What we learned from our former owners regarding plastics technology was of tremendous help to us," says Wright. "Louis W. Baum Jr., a 35-year company veteran who was involved in P/M, saw an article about MIM in 1975. We went into full-scale production with our first MIM part in 1984. Our commercial business really began to take off when we ran an ad in 1986, saying, 'Now your impossible designs can fly.'" 

We're ushered through the company's Custom Gun Shop, where products are engraved by hand. It's like being in a monastery, or an art gallery. For some reason, we whisper when walking through. Then we're out onto the 1-million-sq-ft campus grounds for a quick walk between the looming brick factories and the PMPD building. On the way, Wright informs us that the site was originally selected because of its proximity to what was then the newly constructed Erie Canal. Also, Eliphalet Remington II, the company's founder, was an Ilion native. 

Marley meets us in a conference room. When asked about PMPD's secret to success, he says, "We never oversell MIM. For example, our parts are 95 to 99 percent dense. That's what we say. And we believe using secondaries makes common economic sense in many cases. We have evolved through long learning curves and there is a great core of MIM expertise here. But we support both P/M and MIM technologies, so we can afford to be objective. We present our customers with the big picture, rather than overselling the benefits of either process." 

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A Quality Heritage 
PMPD's big-picture experience is evident in the quality control it exercises over every phase of the MIM process, starting with incoming raw material. After all, its proprietary lines of P/M blends and MIM feedstocks--trademarked CompactAlloy and InjectAlloy, respectively--bear the company's name. It puts more than a half-century of powder metals and binder experience into its feedstocks, custom formulating qualities, like melt flows, to improve properties, like density. Still, from raw material qualification and injection molding through sintering and product testing, no single step is emphasized over any other. 

It sources most of its carbonyl and gas- and water-atomized powders domestically, but also from Sweden, Germany, and Japan. ISP, BASF, Atmix, and Hoeganaes are among its major powder suppliers. To reduce material costs, Wright says the company has considerable experience blending coarser, less-costly, water-atomized metal powders with more costly, gas-atomized, spherical counterparts. 

After a tour of its fully instrumented materials analysis and R&D labs, we're taken downstairs to an area where PMPD performs secondaries. Tapping, drilling, and all the rest are performed for MIM on the left side of the room, and for P/M and some MIM parts on the right. Fixtures for its secondaries are made in-house. On our way to the MIM molding area, Wright explains that PMPD has found that the majority of MIM parts require some kind of secondary work. "We can maximize a part's design attributes upstream," she says. "But secondaries often can be more cost effective, and sometimes they may make more common sense." 

We pause briefly, catching up with Ronald M. George in the QC department, who walks us through the advanced digital hardness- and strength-testing tools PMPD has on hand for final inspections. They include magnetic testing devices, spectrophotometers, and a scanning electron microscope. Before we arrive at the MIM molding room, Wright notes that Remington Arms molds proprietary nylon parts for its rifles on the five presses we pass. 

The P/M and MIM production area is laid out in a manner similar to the secondaries room. Press compaction is on one side and injection molding on the other. Combined, PMPD makes about 300 different parts. About a third are MIM parts, using more than 100 active tools. PMPD outsources its molds and other necessities from a network of preferred subcontractors with which it has enjoyed long-standing relationships. It uses hot sprues more than hot runners and has a comprehensive regrind reclamation program supported by three granulators from Polymer Systems. 

Three 18-month-old, 110-ton Milacron Fanuc all-electric presses are the latest additions to PMPD's molding room. They are used to mold its most challenging parts and for R&D purposes.

PMPD sees its MIM DFM capabilities as one of its biggest assets. It uses ACAD, SolidWorks, and Pro/E software to help its customers and moldmakers speed product development.

Stephen H. Gressel, senior laboratory specialist, uses his advanced microhardness tester to evaluate powders and feedstocks, and to do R&D on new materials. PMPD often is asked to recommend materials.

Renowned gunsmith and master engraver Don Talbot, a 28-year company vet, labors at his craft as others have for ages in Ilion. PMPD puts similar craftsmanship into its total process control.

Manufacturing the Future 
Walking by the company's 77-ton Farrel, we see PMPD's newer presses, efficiently arranged with injection units facing the wall. Waterlines run underneath the floor. Otherwise, machine utilities are from overhead. The presses mostly run semiautomatic with operator stations between them. An SPC computer station is here, running software customized by PMPD. Green and brown part weight analysis is key to its SPC program. 

The Hunkar CNC-1000-equipped Arburgs, given that they are slightly older, are reserved for less complex and simpler parts, Wright says. More demanding, tightly toleranced parts runs on Camac XTL-controlled Milacrons. The company runs product/feedstock development jobs and its most demanding applications on three Milacron Fanuc all-electrics--the latest series of artificially intelligent Roboshots. Experience has taught PMPD that residual molded-in stresses lead to part disturbances downstream. The Roboshot's digital, high-resolution control over variables like injection speed allows PMPD to resolve such problems before they happen. 

Remington Arms was a pioneer in the use of high-temperature continuous debinding and sintering to improve productivity and part properties, a technology others have only just begun to explore. The furnace room is pictured left.

PMPD is one of the industry's largest users of carbonyl iron powders. BASF iron powder is in the blue drums; ISP iron powder is in the black and red drums. PMPD reuses each drum, even in its regrind reclamation program.

Production tools are built in PMPD-standardized four- and eight-cavity versions. Maintenance and repairs are performed in house, as is tool design. PMPD has about 100 active MIM tools.

The furnace room is next door. Its high ceilings provide ample air space for the safe dilution of the hydrogen gas not consumed in the continuous furnaces' eye-catching flame curtains. We turn to see 10 electrically heated convection ovens PMPD uses for thermal debinding. Six solvent debinding units stand nearby. Its continuous furnaces, like most other equipment in the plant, are custom built for PMPD by long-standing members of its network of preferred suppliers. C.I. Hayes Inc. (Cranston, RI) has been supplying pusher and belt furnaces to the company since the 1960s. Remington Arms was way ahead of its time in the use of high-temperature sintering to improve part strength and ductility. 

The feedstock compounding area is next. We pass strands of mixed materials traveling on to pelletizers on water-chilled stainless steel belts. Then we examine yet another lab. This one's equipped with instruments like a helium pycnometer for materials density analysis, a moisture analyzer, and a melt flow indexer. 

Later, back in the conference room, Marley says PMPD will continue to go after challenging work, including smaller and larger MIM parts, while maintaining the company's heritage of quality and its commitment to total customer service. Before leaving, we ask him why people stay so long with Remington Arms. He thinks for just a moment, and then answers, "It's the technological challenge, the variety of applications we come across, and the freedom we have. It's also a matter of loyalty. My father was here for 42 years; my grandfather, 40." It's in their blood. 

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