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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 Digital Environments Help Manage Vehicle Programs 

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by Sandra I. Erwin 

On any given morning, the chief executive of Oshkosh Truck Corp. can look at a computer screen and see how many of the company’s trucks are out of service.

Army Maj. Gen. John S. Caldwell Jr. says he is jealous.

“Unlike the Oshkosh CEO, [in the Army] we don’t know how many of our vehicles are down on a particular day and why,” Caldwell groused during a conference on military trucks in Monterey, Calif.

Computer chips onboard trucks and powerful information-processing software make it possible to monitor the status of the fleet around the world in real time, said Oshkosh chairman Robert G. Bohn.

But Caldwell, who runs the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), does not believe that technology alone is enough.

“In the Army, we have the technology,” he said. “[But] we don’t have the mindset.”

TACOM manages 211 acquisition programs for the Army, worth about $6 billion, and is responsible for the logistics for 71 percent of the Army’s mechanized units.

In Caldwell’s opinion, TACOM needs to become more responsive to customer needs. “We should not fool ourselves,” he said. “Our customer expectations are too low.” He is concerned about enhancing the value of his agency to the larger Army. “It’s time to move off the viewgraphs and get some work done,” he said. “We need to make some adjustments, so TACOM can lead the Army transformation.”

A first step in that direction is the adoption of a “digital framework for collaboration ... to find, manage and use information,” Caldwell said. The command is in the process of building a “digital nervous system” for weapon system design.

Leading that effort is TACOM’s National Automotive Center (NAC), which acts as a liaison between the Army and the commercial automotive industry.

“We’ve been working on a collaborative data environment for several years,” said NAC Director Dennis Wend. The center developed a virtual design lab that links NAC engineers in Detroit with tank operators in Fort Knox. The technology makes it possible to have digital mathematical models of vehicles that look real, not “cartoonish,” said Wend at the conference in Monterey.

The goal, he explained, is to achieve “visualization of design—from concept all the way to engineering changes, in a three-dimensional environment.”

Last December, NAC awarded an $18 million two-year contract to Parametrics Technologies, makers of computer-aided design software. The contract covered 8,000 licenses of the Windchill collaborative Web-based software. “We can take any data, turn it into information. We can work on product development ... [and on] program management,” said Wend.

Caldwell’s wish for a TACOM-wide network that can provide instant information on the status of vehicles is not far-fetched, said Wend. NAC plans to incorporate new diagnostics technology into military vehicles—essentially computer chips that detect malfunctions in vehicle components and transmit that information to a user workstation. The next step, said Wend, is to standardize the technology Army-wide.

Software tools such as Windchill are helpful to manage information, said Mark Adams, president and chief executive officer of Portal Dynamics Inc., in Alexandria, Va. The company designs so-called “integrated data environments” (IDE) for various organizations.

IDE is Pentagon-speak for a Web portal that permits users to share and manipulate information about a product throughout its life cycle. The users include designers, workers who develop products, manufacturing operations, support agencies and suppliers.

An IDE, he explained, includes product information as well as transaction data such as invoicing and billing.

The Windchill software acquired by NAC specifically manages the product data, Adams said in an interview. “It’s a robust tool for technical data product management.” In an IDE, the data alone is not enough. To manipulate and manage data, the IDE relies on a so-called enterprise resource planning software tool, Adams said. Collectively, the data and the planning software form a collaborative work environment.

“TACOM is going in the direction of IDE,” he said.

Web-Based ‘Storefront’
IDEs are different from the old client-server or the mainframe application model, Adams explained. Military customers, for the most part, want their IDEs to be linked to their existing computer systems. They want a Web-based “storefront for users and manufacturers,” said Adams.

Several Defense Department vehicle programs are using IDEs. Portal Dynamics received contracts to build networks for the Army’s family of medium tactical vehicles (FMTV) and the M939 heavy truck. The Marine Corps recently hired the company to build an IDE for its light armored vehicle program. The vehicle’s producer, General Motors Canada, also is setting up an IDE to manage the company’s internal processes for different product lines. Currently, Adams said, GM has 18 information systems that perform different functions.

The FMTV program manager, meanwhile, was “in a quandary,” Adams said. “He had no visibility of the status of field-service reporting for vehicles around the world.” Traditionally, the field-service reporting, which lists the status of every vehicle in a particular area, is done on paper. The FMTV manufacturer, Stewart & Stevenson, would compile the reports and provide a summary to the program manager. “Generally, they were quite late,” said Adams. “By the time the program manager got the information, it was weeks or months old.”

The program office wanted an IDE that would “capture, aggregate and present the results of field-service reports,” he said. Consequently, both the program manager and the manufacturer have “almost real-time information about the status of the fleet worldwide. They have a feel for which trucks are available for use.”

Users of the IDE portal have profiles and passwords, Adams explained. Army staffers in the field enter the information into the network. The program manager thus can track, for example, maintenance trends throughout the fleet and determine which locations incur the most problems with vehicles and why.

The Army has multiple computer systems that must be part of an IDE, he said. There is a system to handle maintenance jobs, another for supplies and product support, spare parts and financial data. “Generally, those systems don’t talk to one another, never have, never were expected to,” said Adams. “In the IDE concept, the expectation is that the FMTV program manager gets integrated maintenance information, supply information, financial data, training, status reporting” even though each item may come from separate information systems.

Before he became president of Portal Dynamics, Adams was in charge of the Defense Department’s “CALS” initiative. CALS means computer-aided logistics support. During the past several years, he noted, rapid advances in commercial Web-based technologies have helped the CALS effort.

Weapon system developers in the government and in the private sector need this technology to be competitive, Adams said.

“The Defense Department is moving along a lot faster than it had [in the past],” he said. “When I had responsibility for the CALS program at the office of the secretary of defense, my team put the policy in place for the expectation of IDEs. There was a lot of concern from the acquisition community.” In recent years, he said, “more technology has become available to make the expectation come to task.”

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