A Safer Ride

June 1, 2005
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Ceradyne's new facility in Wixom, Mich., is developing the next generation of advanced protection for military and commercial vehicles.

A rendering of Ceradyne's new Vehicle Armor Systems facility in Wixom, Mich.
From rocks and handguns to assault weapons and explosives, those who travel in some of the world's most volatile regions never know what they're going to encounter. These days, it's best to be prepared for anything. And that's precisely what Ceradyne's new Vehicle Armor Systems facility in Wixom, Mich., is helping to achieve. The 28,800-square-foot facility, which officially began operating April 1, 2005, was established as a center of engineering excellence for the design and application of advanced armor and blast protection systems for the military's tactical wheeled vehicle fleet. But the military isn't the only group that stands to benefit from the advances pioneered here. Ambassadors, government officials, private contractors and others who refuse to be deterred by the threat of violence are discovering that ceramic vehicle armor offers a welcome layer of protection.

As the demand for ceramic armor increases, so too does the need for an experienced engineering resource. "With this expansion, we can help prevent vehicle manufacturers from going into another round of costly design changes for armor components on future vehicles. We are already working closely with prime contractors as well as the government to ensure that we are ahead of their requirements in the future," says Marc King, vice president of Ceradyne's Armor Operations.

A Ford F-150 SuperCrew pickup truck has been stripped of its interior panels, and polystyrene templates are being fitted into every available space in the dashboard, side panels, doors, floor and roof to design an armor system that will provide the maximum amount of protection against "high rifle threats." The finished templates will then be sent to Costa Mesa, Calif., where the final armor will be manufactured.

Solid Beginnings

To say that Ceradyne has experience in engineering ceramic armor is a bit of an understatement. Initially a research-

oriented company founded by Joel Moskowitz in 1967, Ceradyne installed its first hot press in 1970 and began a development program for lightweight ceramic armor-originally for military helicopters-in 1971. The company brought its ceramic armor into full production in the 1980s.

Although military spending on ceramic armor waned over the next decade, Ceradyne remained steadfast in its armor research and development efforts. This dedication began to pay off in the 1990s, as lightweight ceramic body armor gradually started to replace much heavier steel systems. Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We were in the right place at the right time, primarily because of our ability to make large quantities of theoretically dense, fine-grained boron carbide ceramics and the technology to assemble them into very effective, rugged, ballistically sound body armor systems," Moskowitz was quoted as saying in a previous Ceramic Industry article.1

In just a few short years, the company has grown exponentially. Ceradyne's 2004 sales reached a record $215.6 million, up 376% from the $45.3 million in sales it reported in 2001. The company attributed about 59% of its total 2004 sales to its ceramic armor business. While the bulk of this demand has been for body armor, applications in military and commercial vehicles have also begun to strengthen. Even before 9/11, Ceradyne recognized the need for lightweight ceramic vehicle armor systems. The company began collaborating with automotive manufacturers in the Detroit, Mich., area on fully integrated vehicle armor systems in early 2001. In June of that year, Ceradyne hired Michael Kurilla, an engineer with several decades of experience in the automotive industry, to serve as its armored vehicle manager in the Detroit area. But convincing commercial and military establishments to switch from steel to ceramic has been a bit of a challenge.

"Traditionally, the high price of ceramic has been a big barrier," says Kurilla, now director of the new Wixom facility. "However, as the volume of ceramic vehicle armor has increased, prices have begun to drop. Additionally, ceramic is 50% lighter, which can provide a big savings on fuel and maintenance requirements over the life of the vehicle. What good is a protective vehicle if it requires constant maintenance on the tires, brakes, etc., due to all the extra weight of steel armor? When you really compare the life cycle of the two materials, ceramic comes out ahead in terms of durability and fuel economy," Kurilla says.

While such benefits are significant, ceramic vehicle armor has also faced another significant hurdle-few companies have had experience designing with ceramic materials. For Ceradyne, this challenge presented a unique opportunity. Why not leverage its extensive ceramic experience to provide engineering and design support in this emerging field?

A Strategic Location

At first, Lexington, Ky., looked like the ideal location for Ceradyne's new Vehicle Armor Systems facility. The company had acquired a 115,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Lexington in October 2003 for the manufacture of diesel engine components and ceramic body armor plates, and the city was eager to see further expansion. But Ceradyne's major vehicle armor customers, including the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) and the U.S. Army's Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), are both headquartered in Warren, Mich., near Detroit. Suppliers of vehicle-related components and services are also in the Detroit area, along with Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler.

"We wanted to be located close to our customer base so that we could provide the best support possible," says Kurilla.

An incentive package from the state of Michigan and the city of Wixom-which included a single business tax credit valued at more than $946,000-sealed the deal. In exchange, Ceradyne had to promise that the new state-of-the-art facility would create a minimum of 25 jobs over the next five years. Given the potential for ceramic vehicle armor, Kurilla sees this figure as an easy target. In fact, he envisions that the site will eventually expand beyond designing and engineering prototypes into the actual production of the ceramic vehicle armor systems, which are currently manufactured in Ceradyne's Costa Mesa, Calif., facility. Although Ceradyne has yet to claim any additional space in Wixom, a new facility that is already under construction directly adjacent to the existing building could provide an easy opportunity for expansion. Another vacant lot nearby offers additional promise.

"Many other companies in the vehicle armoring industry don't have true engineering and design capabilities, so that gives Ceradyne Vehicle Armor Systems an advantage. As more people begin to recognize the benefits of ceramic vehicle armor, the opportunity for growth is significant," Kurilla says.

Michael Kurilla, director of the new Wixom Vehicle Armor Systems facility.

A Promising Future

Inside the new facility, the initial crew of 10 experienced automotive engineers-five in design and five in prototyping-is hard at work on several projects that have already been brought in. The company closely collaborates with its customers to tailor the armor to the vehicle and its intended application. "The weight capability of the vehicle is key," notes Kurilla. "Even though ceramic armor weighs much less than steel, there is still some extra weight involved, and the vehicle has to be rated to handle that weight. We get involved at the very earliest stages of design to help ensure that the armor system is completely optimized."

The company is working with the military on vehicle armor for use in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for the military's "future combat systems" and "future technical trucks." Commercial applications are also under development. According to Kurilla, next-generation projects will include "clear ceramics," such as glass-ceramic compositions, sapphire and aluminum oxynitride (AlON). Until now, such materials have been too expensive for widespread use. However, the current "bulletproof glass" systems are extremely heavy, so lighter-weight materials are needed. The company is also continuously working on new ways to combine materials-such as steel, ceramics and glass-to come up with creative armor solutions.

"We want to be known as the premier vehicle armor engineering and development facility," Kurilla says.

Reference

1. "Profiles of Leadership: Advanced Ceramics," Ceramic Industry, Vol. 154, No. 10, p. 19, online at http://www.ceramicindustry.com.

Ceradyne Vehicle Armor Systems can be reached at Dennis Industrial Complex, 50370 Dennis Ct., Bldg. B, Wixom, MI 48393; (248) 960-9339; fax (248) 960-9338; e-mail mkurilla@ceradyne.com.

For more information about Ceradyne, Inc., contact the company at 3169 Redhill Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; (714) 549-0421; fax (714) 549-5787; e-mail sales@ceradyne.com; or visit http://www.ceradyne.com.

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