Battling the elements

Corrosion: At Aberdeen Proving Ground, military vehicles are exposed to rigorous conditions as engineers try to make them more durable.

January 30, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

One recent chilly morning, Kenny Sayers strapped on a helmet and climbed behind the wheel of a murky-brown truck at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Within seconds, a ton of military metal careened down a puddle-filled roadway at 40 mph, splashing salt water all over itself before coming to a soggy halt.

"It's just like kids with big toys," Sayers said. "It's fun."

What might look like child's play to some is serious business to the Army, which in August opened a $1.5 million Accelerated Corrosion Test Facility at the Harford County base to study the effects of the elements on military vehicles.

The site is the first of its kind run by the military. Everything from high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicles to trucks are run through a battery of tests designed to simulate life in the field. In buildings that resemble carwashes, engineers are trying to unlock the secrets of how to increase the life of a military vehicle.

There is the salt fog/mist chamber, where a haze of corrosive solution bathes a truck to replicate atmospheric fallout. In the grit trough, the vehicles get dirty while a saline solution mixed with earth is applied to the undercarriage of the vehicle.

In the splash trough, vehicles must navigate through a saline solution at highway speeds to replicate spray and splash patterns.

After all that wear and tear, there is the high temperature/high humidity chamber, where the temperature can reach a maximum of 160, accelerating corrosion.

"It is fairly rigorous, and it needs to be rigorous," said Greg Rymarz, the center's test director. "For years, the Army has road-tested their vehicles, and now what we have done is added corrosion testing to that and taken it to the field. It's more realistic that way."

The test site rests on 150 acres, providing enough room for the combination of primary, secondary and cross-country road courses the trucks must also endure.

According to an APG study, the Army spends approximately $850 a year per truck for corrosion repairs. That adds up to millions of dollars a year, officials said.

"When the Army buys hardware these days, they want it to last as long as possible in the field," said Steve King, a senior engineer and special projects officer for the test facility. "With the budgeting constraints now facing the military, they now want trucks to last anywhere from 20 to 25 years."

At the APG center, vehicles usually go through one test cycle a day. Fifteen such cycles is equal to one year of corrosion in the field. Testers at the site will be able to "compress" time, King said, simulating 22 years of vehicle life in a year and a half.

After each day's testing, the trucks are placed overnight in a building to dry, then inspected. After all the tests are completed, the vehicles are taken apart to identify possible flaws in design and to collect data about the corrosion.

King said General Motors, which runs a similar facility at the Milford Proving Ground in Michigan, worked with APG to design the testing center. Engineers at the base have received inquiries from other bases about the new technology, he said.

King said the Army is just beginning to implement technology that the private sector has used for years, but that it's for different purposes.

"The auto industry's focus is more cosmetic," King said. "People don't like it when their trucks rust out. But the Army is concerned with getting as much use out of a vehicle as possible."

Recently, Rick Garrison stood examining the tires of a truck in the salt fog/mist chamber. Garrison manages the facility's two drivers and two data collectors.

"The salt water dries out your skin a bit," Garrison said, laughing. "I go through a lot of lotion."

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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