Century on the Front and Advancing

With the world's first-ever metal matrix composite brake drums rolling out of its TC plant and bound for U.S. military vehicles, Century 3/ Plus sets its sights on the Defense Department's next request: vehicle armor.

TRAVERSE CITY – The Traverse City company that recently developed a way to craft an ultralight, ultra-strong ceramic-aluminum material and components has nabbed its first production order. The client? None other than the United States military.

The Department of Defense has asked Century 3/ Plus, a division of Century, Inc., to cast the first ever lightweight aluminum metal matrix composite (MMC) brake drum for the military's Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) lineup.

The FMTV line includes 14 different durable vehicles based on a common chassis. They are hard-working, reliable trucks and trailers that have proved durable in rugged terrains.

The brake drum, which will provide a weight savings of up to 300 pounds, is made from industrial ceramics infused with aluminum alloys.

"The theory behind the technology is to come up with ways to use lighter-weight metal alloys where heavier cast iron would normally be used," explains Century's business development manager Jim McManus. "This drum weighs 45 percent less than its cast-iron equivalent and lasts significantly longer. The lighter weight and longer lifecycle mean increased mobility, fuel savings, vehicle efficiencies and lower maintenance costs for the vehicle."

McManus has been working with Army officials at the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, MI to develop blends of ceramics and metals for military use.

Century 3/ Plus' patented process results in a consistent ceramic-aluminum blend that is required to take the wear that a brake drum endures over the course of its life. The new brake drum lasts longer than traditional drums because the aluminum alloy dissipates heat at a greater rate than cast iron. "Not only do you have lighter weight, but you also have a longer life cycle," says McManus.

In addition to weight reduction, the aluminum drums do not shatter and turn into deadly metal fragments like the cast iron drums do when hit by a roadside bomb. "Instead of turning into shrapnel, the aluminum drums just melt," explains McManus. "That's a real safety factor for our troops."

In August, McManus made a presentation of the brake drums before an Army technical team that included engineers, logisticians, user representatives, test representatives and other experts. "A technology of the type of war fighting capabilities (reliability, maintainability, sustainability and mission enhancement) you demonstrated was viewed as having high military utility and high overhaul potential," wrote Col John Myers in a followup letter to Century officials.

That led Century to cast about 100 of the innovative brake drums that will be tested this month by the military. The test results should be known by the end of the year. If all goes smoothly, Century could launch low-rate initial production of the brake drums by late 2011 or early 2012.

There are about 52,000 FMTVs in use by the military and a recent contract has been issued for another 25,000 to be built, according to McManus. "That would be about 150,000 brake drums that Century might supply," he notes.

While this first product is a brake drum, the technology could theoretically be adapted to other vehicle components, especially for any cast iron part that is exposed to plenty of wear and tear.

While there is no current plan to adapt the brake drums to commercial vehicles, Century is testing them on a limited number of its own 30 delivery trucks that visit clients throughout the Midwest.

In another defense-related development, Century 3/ Plus has been invited to participate in a Department of Defense program to identify new armor concepts for military vehicles. The Armor Challenge is designed to aid small companies and inventors who are working to reduce the cost and weight of vehicle armor. It's an opportunity for companies to have a rapid, impartial evaluation of their armor concepts.

To land and fulfill those government contracts, Century has begun a $6.2 million expansion plan at its Aero Park Drive complex and plans to add a number of well-paying jobs in Traverse City. A veteran-owned company, Century currently has 130 employees in TC.

"We hope to create, at a minimum, 25 jobs over the next five years," says McManus. "It could be more. And these are well-paying jobs – machining, engineering, logistics. A good cross-section of quality jobs."

Founded in 1970 in the Detroit area, Century was moved to TC by owner Bill Janis in 1974. The company specializes in manufacturing hardened-steel components. Precision machining and metal heat treating are the company's core business. Century serves a variety of clients in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, aerospace, defense, medical and oil and gas industries in 38 states and a dozen foreign countries. BN

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