The U.S. Air Force's Aerospace Guidance and Metrology Center (AGMC) is housed in a 16-acre building at Newark Air Force Base, outside Columbus, Ohio. The center maintains and repairs the guidance systems for ballistic missiles and the navigation systems for military aircraft. Technicians depend on high precision cleaning, as even the tiniest residue could cause a missile or aircraft to go astray. For years, the primary compounds used to clean these parts were CFC-113 and methyl chloroform, two ozone-depleting chemicals (ODCs). As a result, the AGMC was once one of the world's largest consumers of ODCs and was a direct cause of significant environmental damage. Today, however, the Center has stopped using these environmentally hazardous solvents almost completely.
Air Force engineers first began experimenting with alternative cleaning methods in the 1980s, in response to concerns about the storage and disposal of used ODC solvents. The AGMC stepped up these efforts after the ratification of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1988 and the ODC-related amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1990. Engineers and technicians took on the challenge of finding safe, effective, and environmentally compatible alternatives for more than 1,000 repair and cleaning processes. Their preferred solution was startling: soap and water. Although many engineers and technicians were skeptical that detergent and de-ionized water could clean as reliably as a chemical solvent--particularly given the possible risk of corrosion and rust--rigorous testing, planning, and evaluation eventually won them over. By 1992, the Center had formally established a plan to cut ODC usage.
The Center then embarked on a comprehensive effort to overhaul its cleaning facilities and to train technicians in the new processes without disrupting normal workflow. In less than a year's time, the AGMC redesigned and renovated sixteen cleaning rooms. Technicians were trained one at a time to use the new procedures, something that drastically altered the way they worked. Administrators made concerted efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues and to expedite ODC-related paperwork. By 1994, the Center's use of ODCs had fallen drastically. In 1988, the Center was using more than 2 million pounds of CFC-113 a year. By 1994, however, it was using only 18,000 pounds a year. And on December 31, 1994, the Center ceased all purchases of ODC solvents. The AGMC accomplished all this without a decline in productivity.
The Center's innovation not only reduced the worldwide threat of ozone depletion: the Aerospace Guidance and Metrology Center is now safer, more productive, and less costly. Technicians are no longer forced to inhale chemical fumes and the redesign has resulted in safer, more efficient workspaces. In developing the alternative cleaning processes, Center staff also redesigned their operations and were able to boost efficiency: yields on many processes increased after the conversion to non-ODC compounds. Although it cost close to $1.4 million to establish the new procedure and recurring annual costs are approximately $200,000, if the Center still relied on ODCs, annual costs would exceed $9 million.
The AGMC's efforts have also demonstrated that alternative processes can be successfully introduced into critical industries in a timely and cost-effective manner. The new methods are particularly applicable to other defense and business industries that rely on precision cleaning. There are, however, possibilities for broader replication, based on strategies that emphasize managerial leadership, a team-centered approach, creative procurement procedures, and exacting attention to testing and evaluation.