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Government work.

Government Work

Having spent most of my career either practicing or championing the art and science of manufacturing engineering, I feel our profession is taking a bum rap for the cost overruns and price scandals that are giving Department of Defense suppliers such poor press. Screwdrivers, crescent wrenches, coffee pots, and toilet seats can be purchased in your local hardware store for a tiny fraction of what the DoD pays.

No one can rise in defense of a contract to buy screwdrivers for hundreds of dollars each. Certainly no one imagines that direct manufacturing costs are responsible for this outrage. The manufacturing engineer rightly denies responsibility, shrugging it off with a "who, me?' knowing full well it is the higher-ups negotiating such contracts.

On my first job as a tool draftsman, I had my first encounter with Government Work. The chief tool engineer sent a small wooden cabinet to the maintenance shop to have a 3 4 sheet of plywood screwed to the top so I could use it as a reference table behind my stool at the drawing board. He later found that the reason this simple task was billed to our department at $450 was that two guys in maintenance had a Government Job for a shop supervisor and no job order to charge their time. They chose to put it on ours, figuring we were most unlikely to check up on such an interdepartmental charge.

In my youthful innocence, I didn't know that in the vernacular of the shop Government Work meant any job not authorized as a proper function of the business. It could be using the blue-print machine to run copies of posters for the local community's Fourth of July picnic and fireworks display. Or making a part for the maintenance of something at the local school. Or even more taboo were the jobs for somebody's church or private home. Even local government employees know that "conversion' of public property to private use is a criminal act.

While a good cost accounting system must account for all payroll hours against some work order, there are times when the time spent doesn't fit any open order. That too was called Government Work. Maybe it was a carryover from the WPA mentality that gave people the idea of labeling goofing off as Government Work.

Currently, investigative reporters suggest many reasons why Government Work entails outrageous costs. Bidders somehow must recover the paperwork costs of submitting their bids. Some think it desirable to entertain contract officers. A manager might need to board his dog while going after the order. A contract officer might suggest that everyone looks better if the equipment is bid at a low figure and the difference made up later by issuing a change order, or by padding the price of the spare parts. The company that had the development contract might turn out to be the only one bidding on the production contract, thereby gaining a single source advantage in future pricing. Generally, huge orders only can be filled by huge contractors, so single sources become a way of life.

While taxpayers may be willing to allow people in business to recover their legitimate costs, they certainly are familiar with what they are paying to their local hardware store and justly outraged when their government pays more. Your family budget is lean, strong, and hungry--you don't want your tax dollars at work feeding fat cats. What can be done?

Applaud efforts to make bidding for Government Work more competitive. Tool shops and contract machine shops may not be big enough to build a nuclear submarine or missile, but they certainly can build the tools and machine many of the parts. They should be given the opportunity to quote such jobs and, by simplifying bureaucratic forms, find it simpler to submit their bids. The more these projects can be like competitive business in the private sector, the more the public will be assured that competitive forces are keeping costs down. We expect Ford and Chrysler to keep General Motors' prices in line. In a free market it probably would be more like Toyota keeping the Big Three in line.

More competitive bidding on parts and tooling also will give manufacturing engineering talent a chance to provide more DoD gear at lower costs. Shops that gain their competitive edge by using CNC machine tools, programmed by people who know how to get the most out of them, can help put the defense procurement situation back into a cost effective status.

While the bureaucracy may fire the auditors who blow the whistle, each taxpayer should thank them for helping get this sector of manufacturing back to respectability.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:machine shop's contract from Department of Defense
Author:Keebler, Jim
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:column
Date:Jun 1, 1985
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