Rix Industries’ Sparks team helps power U.S. warship
Employees of Rix Industries of Sparks are helping drive the largest and most technically advanced aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy.
The nuclear-powered Gerald. R Ford supercarrier was christened Nov. 9. at the Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia and is expected to join the Navy’s fleet in 2016. At a cost of approximately $13 billion, the 90,000-ton carrier is the largest, most-expensive warship ever built.
Rix Industries, which is headquartered at Benicia, Calif. provided nine specially designed low-pressure air compressors that supply air throughout the ship. The compressed air is used in multiple ways, from powering tools to controlling the pneumatic controls on the ship’s nuclear reactor. Rix also provides large two nitrogen generators for the ship. The generators provide compressed nitrogen that’s used to fill aircraft tires, struts and fuel cell blankets, which replace depleted fuel in the plane’s wings with nitrogen to eliminate a potentially explosive fuel-air mix.
About half of the equipment was built by Rix Industries’ team of 22 in Sparks. Many of the components for the nitrogen generators were built here before being shipped to Benicia for completion and packaging.
“It really depends on where we have the available labor,” says Sparks Plant Manager and Director of Manufacturing David Miloslavich. “Sometimes we make them here, sometimes we make them down there.”
Rix didn’t have to staff up to deliver the products on time because aircraft carriers are built so infrequently, Miloslavich says. It does provide a much more steady stream of products to warships and submarines, however.
Rix Industries has a long history as a defense contractor — the company was founded in 1878. One of its specialties is building high-pressure oil-free compressors. For instance, its liquid-oxygen compressors for aircraft carriers provide oxygen throughout a ship, including medical oxygen for a ship’s sickbay and for pilots flying at high altitudes.
Rix Industries plays a much more crucial role for the Navy’s submarine fleet. Its high-pressure air compressors provide the air that’s used to raise submarines from the depths of the ocean floor and to reduce air pressure inside submerged vessels.
Despite its long history as a defense contractor, supplying such critical equipment is no easy gig, Miloslavich says. Materials used in construction have to be traceable all the way down to the ingots melted into equipment castings.
“The traceability is huge,” he says. “The joke in the office is that when the paperwork weighs as much as the equipment then it’s ready to ship — unfortunately it’s not that far off.”
The high-pressure compressors used in subs also must pass rigorous shock, vibration and stress testing — it wouldn’t do to have a vibration that could give away the ship’s position. Miloslavich proudly says that when one of the company’s compressors is running at full speed he can set a nickel on its edge on the machine and it won’t roll off.
In addition, every single weld on the compressors must be recorded, and every air component must be certified at one-and-a-half times its maximum working pressure.
“There’s a lot that goes into making these things reliable,” Miloslavich says. “It makes our guys proud that we are the ones the Navy comes to to do that.”
Much of Rix Industries team in Sparks works as mechanical assemblers. The company has instituted many lean manufacturing policies that speed up assembly of its products and help standardize assembly.
For instance, mechanics assembling certain pieces of equipment only have on hand the tools necessary to complete the job. It also has a clear documentation and training policies to bring mechanics up to speed on assembly requirements.
“Not too many guys have seen a submarine compressor,” Miloslavich says. “But the lean systems really helped us. We saw the quality improve dramatically. We had a lot fewer failures on the test stand, and it just works better. The profitability and reliability is better, and the mechanics like it.”
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