Military Trucks Weighed Down By ‘Yesteryear’s Technology’
Century Inc. is no different.
The Michigan-based company worked hand in hand with Army researchers to produce an aluminum brake drum that weighs about half as much as its cast-iron equivalent. Tests have determined that the new drum could shave as much as 400 pounds from certain tactical vehicles. The breakthrough seems readymade for a military looking to upgrade its aging fleet of trucks without adding extra weight.
But after five years of research and development, now comes the hard part.
“You develop a technology and get to a high readiness level,” said Jim McManus, new business development manager at Century. “You now want to transition the technology to the end user and there’s not a bridge or funding mechanism to transfer that over.”
Other companies have experienced the same frustration while watching their products disappear into the so-called “valley of death.” They say they are delivering the innovation that the Pentagon says it needs from industry. But many times, vendors still find it difficult to secure long-term deals.
The Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, or TACOM, recently sponsored research and development by another Michigan firm, Eaton Corp., as the company sought ways to reduce rollover tendencies in the Humvee.
Eaton came up with an electronically actuated axle differential.
“There are 130,000 Humvees in the military inventory,” said Bill Batten, government account director at Eaton. “All could be updated tomorrow and we could significantly reduce the number of rollover accidents.”
But the military continues to write specifications that include “yesteryear’s technology,” Batten said. The services have brought the cutting edge to their aircraft but seem hesitant to do the same with ground vehicles, he said.
“You buy an F/A-18 Hornet and you get the best of everything, and then you go to a ground vehicle and it looks like something from the Eastern Bloc countries,” Batten said.
Many industry solutions to improve the military’s truck fleets revolve around delivering the weight savings sought by the Pentagon. No military vehicle is complete without armor, which is where this weight battle can be won or lost. The Army and Marine Corps have been slow in accepting solutions other than steel. This has left companies that specialize in lighter composites out in the cold, industry executives said. Ceradyne Inc.’s ceramic armor kits have been tested and approved for use on military vehicles. One of the company’s core competencies is boron carbide, which can cause a bullet to shatter upon impact.
“We have not received a major production contract directly for these types of materials,” said Marc King, president of Ceradyne. “Our Army has had an institutional prejudice in favor of metal armor solutions … the Europeans are way ahead of us on this.”
The military does hang ceramic armor on two of its ground armored vehicles, the Stryker and the Guardian. Everything else is protected by steel or aluminum. Military buyers are biased toward steel because they believe that it works best against improvised explosive devices, King said, even though it adds extra weight.
“There are plenty of ways to lower the weight,” he said. As part of a study, Ceradyne was able to reduce 110 pieces of armor on a Humvee to 30. This saved about 1,200 pounds, King said.
“The government is slow to adopt new technologies,” King said. “Some of this has to do with the ability of depots to work with certain types of materials. They’re very comfortable when they work with steel and aluminum. They know how to order a 4-foot sheet of metal. They get a little nervous when you have to do a ceramic composite.”
The Army and Marine Corps are pinning some of their hopes on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, but many in industry see that program as a long shot. King doesn’t believe that the military will ever reach production on a JLTV. “You’ll continue to see a lot of playing around with the JLTV, and then something else will happen,” he said. Other companies are thinking the same thing as they try to position themselves and their products in a growing reset market.
“We’ve got this fleet of Humvees and for a fraction of what you spend on the JLTV, we could bring those things into the 21st century,” Batten said. “But if we see the same specs again, we’ll just end up in the same situation.”
The military should “take the blinders off and see what’s available out there,” he said.
Military trucks could benefit from different kinds of transmissions, Batten said. Engineering firm Roush Industries recently conducted a study evaluating one of Eaton Corp.’s automated manual transmissions, which removes the need for a clutch by using electronic equipment to shift gears. The investigation centered on the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV), which currently employs an automatic transmission made by Allison Industries. The results showed that Eaton’s product, along with another manual transmission, improved fuel economy by about 22 percent.
“These fuel economy gains can be attributed to the greater efficiency of manual transmissions and the increased numbers of gears available in these transmissions to keep the engine operating in its most efficient region,” said the report. The study did not consider design, packaging, development, durability, manufacturing or other commercial issues related to the transmission. Still, the fuel efficiency numbers should speak volumes to the military, Batten said.
The services continue to use automatic transmissions that much of the commercial world has moved beyond, he said. It seems to fly in the face of what he hears from military officials, who state that they want to adopt new technologies being produced in the private sector. “They talk about it on all their slides. Every convention you go to they talk about it,” Batten said. “But when it comes down to putting their money where their mouth is, they don’t do it.”
McManus remains hopeful about his company’s breakthroughs, though he admits that transitioning new technology to a military vehicle presents its share of barriers.
“In our situation the challenge has been that the government has paid us to develop this and now we have to go sell it to the government again,” he said. “It just seems that if the government is paying me to do one thing, you’d think they’re paying you to do this because they want to use it.”
McManus believes part of the issue may be that new technologies generally cost more than those currently in use by the military. His company’s lightweight brake drum, for instance, probably will cost a tad more than the government pays now for the same part. If the Defense Logistics Agency is paying $250 for a regular brake drum, then Century’s may cost about $300, McManus said.
Raw aluminum costs as much as three times more than cast iron, “so if you want to go light, it’s going to cost more,” he said. “But if I make a brake drum that’s going to last four times longer and give you fuel savings, there’s a strong business case for doing that.”
The cast-iron brake drum has worked for the military for nearly a century. Ultimately, it is the duty of companies like Century to convince the Defense Department why it needs to change, McManus said.
Century’s brake drum is a composite of aluminum and ceramic. It has been tested and used extensively on commercial delivery trucks running routes throughout the Midwest. One brake drum analyzed after 50,000 miles hardly showed any wear, McManus said. Based on that evidence, he estimated that the drum would last long beyond the life of the truck, or more than 1.5 million miles.
Century worked with the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center to convert the commercial drum to a military format. This model was slated for testing on an FMTV in late January.
“A brake drum is not as sexy as titanium or some elaborate material,” McManus said. But military maintenance experts are still looking to shave ounces from unlikely parts, right down to bolts. Century has ceramic pre-forms for rotors, piston rings, clutch plates, cylinder liners and even one that can be used in armor. Ultimately, any solution that can help the services will benefit the civilian world as well, McManus said.
“There’s a strong need and market brewing on the commercial side of things for hybrid vehicles, lightweight vehicles and alternative energy sources,” he said. “There are things [industry is] developing now that will end up in the commercial market. Not only do we make parts to help our troops defend our country, but some of these products will come back to help the average American citizen.”
Topics: Land Forces