Defense Contractor Partnerships Could Spur Innovation
One major combat vehicle manufacturer, General Dynamics Land Systems, has opened a new 15,000-square foot facility in Michigan intended to foster the rapid development of innovative technology for military customers.
The “maneuver collaboration center” houses several labs where potential partners can test and evaluate their solutions in models and simulations to see how well the components might integrate onto existing or concept vehicles. Once the technology is ready for prime time, it is presented to military officials.
“There’s no obligation on anyone’s part,” said Joanne Cavanaugh, the center’s director. “This is far left of any [request for proposal]. But it’s an opportunity to illustrate to the defense leadership that we’re serious about trying to find the technology that will eliminate their need to do a lot of design and development effort.”
To ensure that the technology pursuits will satisfy actual requirements, the MC2, pronounced M-C squared, works with Army and Marine Corps officials and current military vehicle users to identify technology gaps. The center lists those needs on a website and member organizations that wish to pitch their solutions simply send in their proposals. The center so far has attracted more than 2,400 members, including more than 920 suppliers. Participants range from small businesses and General Dynamics sister organizations to other large prime contractors.
Once a proposal has been submitted, an MC2 team reviews it within 48 hours. If the idea does not pass muster, the submitting party is notified. But if it has potential, officials invite the proposer to begin collaborating. Within seven days, an initial meeting between the supplier and MC2 engineers takes place to add more technical depth to the solution.
“I’m really not interested in doing a lot of science projects here,” said Cavanaugh. “I really want to do things that have value.”
After that first meeting, the supplier within 30 days will commence working on the project and modeling and integrating the technology in the various laboratories. The facilities include a war fighter integration lab, where pitched concepts are virtually incorporated into a vehicle and then tested for interference, space constraints and other measurements; a battle lab, where engineers can model complete systems in complex fighting scenarios that illustrate the costs associated with sustaining and operating the vehicle; and a vehicle center where live systems are brought into bays for hardwire integration of components. Suppliers also will have opportunities to meet with troops and other military customers.
“We have some great collaboration there before it even gets anywhere close to a purchase order,” said Cavanaugh. “It allows us to give the suppliers that voice, that interaction with the military so they hear directly from them on what kinds of things they can do better.”
After a month or two of that collaboration, General Dynamics officials will present the solution to military customers for approval or redirection.
Cavanaugh said so far they have presented about a dozen innovations that have been accepted by military customers who will finance them and incorporate them onto their vehicles.
“The average process for those was 54 days,” she said. “That’s pretty quick. It’s finding technologies already out there — proven, tested, fielded — that can be used on military weapons.”
The same procedure via the traditional acquisition cycle usually takes anywhere from six months to two years.
Most of the accepted solutions resided in the area of soldier survivability — safety innovations that would enhance troops’ comfort inside vehicle cabins when they are strapped down for roadside bomb blasts. The technologies will be incorporated into retrofit kits that will be applied to the vehicles during a reset or upgrade opportunity.
Four more solutions have been approved since early summer, and military officials were reviewing about a half dozen more for inclusion into other programs, Cavanaugh told National Defense.
Officials by June had placed 94 “needs” statements up on the MC2 website. The center has received some 757 proposals across eight broad categories: mobility, power and energy; survivability; lethality; operations and sustainment; process technologies; systems integration and architecture; automation and autonomous systems; and subsystem development.
What makes the process especially gratifying for Cavanaugh is that the center is gaining exposure to non-traditional suppliers, the small businesses that ordinarily would not have an entrée to working with the Defense Department. Some of those are in the automotive and racing industries. The MC2 process provides opportunities for both current defense suppliers and new businesses to present products for evaluation.
“It’s respectful of our existing supply base, but it is acknowledging there is opportunity for growth in areas that don’t impede on what our current supply base does,” said Cavanaugh.
Small businesses struggle with breaking into the defense arena because they don’t know what the military needs and they become lost in the acquisition shuffle. Those firms can meet with large defense contractors multiple times and with different parties who express interest in their offerings, but nobody is there to pull it all together. The MC2 is filling that gap, participants said.
“As a small business, you want to know, ‘is there interest?’ If there is interest, what are the next steps? You’re looking for closure, whether it’s good or bad. A process like this shows you the next steps and where it’s headed,” said Jim McManus, new business development manager for Century Inc., a Traverse City, Mich.-based firm with specialties in precision machining, metal heat-treating and metal matrix composites. The firm registered to become a member of the collaboration center and submitted proposals featuring technology to lighten the weight of military vehicles by 1,000 pounds.
“They all deal with saving a significant amount of weight on vehicles and they improve the performance on drive train components,” he said.
One of the solutions employs a process to look at vehicle components made out of heavy-cast iron or steel. It determines what sections or parts could be replaced by metal matrix composite material that will preserve the properties and characteristics of the original metal.
So far, prospects are looking up for the company’s proposals, McManus said. “They submitted innovative solutions that have some great traction from a weight savings perspective on any platform, not just specific to Stryker,” said Cavanaugh. “We are looking at it for Stryker, and the Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicle and for some international customers. … Anything we can do to drive weight out makes the vehicles more efficient and provides opportunities not only for fuel savings but also for increased capacity.”
Small businesses are sometimes discouraged by the traditional defense acquisition process because they may spend a lot of time and resources only to discover that they are off the mark, or that they have a promising innovation that requires more development than Defense Department officials are willing to fund. Innovations are not simply spurned and forgotten at the MC2. It will bank ideas and solutions that have potential but do not have a proper outlet yet with military customers.
“Maybe your idea isn’t developed yet, or the timing is off. I wouldn’t lose hope,” said McManus. “They have a way to archive ideas.”
Having that complete visibility of available technologies is beneficial to all involved, Cavanaugh said.
“We respect what anybody brings to us. If it’s of a technology level that we can do something with, great. If not, we’re perfectly willing to help them find assistance in other areas,” she said. The MC2, for example, can direct promising nascent technologies six miles north to the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or into the “incubator” program in the greater Detroit region. The incubators comprise state government and other organizations that help small businesses develop their technology.
The eight thrust areas for the time being will remain stable, but Cavanaugh said her employees are pulsing customers for additional ideas.
“As we solve problems, we want to find more and put them up there,” on the website, she said. A recent meeting with Stryker program officials refined 20 additional “needs” statements that the MC2 was planning to add to its online list.
Though the current focus is to find technologies that will improve existing vehicles and speed them to their customers, in the future, the MC2 will seek collaborations for new programs, such as the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle and Marine Personnel Carrier.
“All those are certainly avenues ripe for finding ways for future collaboration,” said Cavanaugh.
The Defense Department’s acquisition reform initiative promotes the concept of the 80 percent solution, that is, a weapon system that fulfills troops’ needs but at the cost of technological trade-offs that can be ameliorated down the road.
“We understand that the dynamics have shifted,” said Cavanaugh. “The willingness of the primes and willingness of the members we have in MC2, both the large companies and small companies, to engage in this level of in-depth analysis and integration before it gets to the military is an indication that we know things have changed and that we’re doing what we can to support the soldiers.”
Attaining the 80 percent solution will keep soldiers and marines equipped with the best technology that’s out there, she said. “I think things like MC2 are going to be the discriminator that gets them to the 100 percent [solution].”
The success of two previous projects for the Stryker combat vehicle illustrated the need for a concept like the MC2, said Cavanaugh.
One project was incorporating a double V-hull onto the bottom of the eight-wheeled personnel carrier to harden it against roadside bomb blasts in Afghanistan. The idea came about in December 2009 after explosions exposed the vehicle’s vulnerability. General Dynamics has since produced 150 double V-hull Strykers that are currently being fielded. A total of 450 are on order for the Army.
“The fact that we could take something as large as a 20-ton vehicle and do a significant redesign engineering effort and get it into production, through tests and into the field in 18 months really illustrates for us the willingness of the Army to engage with us on programs where we do a lot of the legwork in finding mature technologies and then speed them to the Army,” said Cavanaugh. She added that the project would have taken as long as three or four years had it gone through the traditional design and development process.
Following the swifter model, General Dynamics also developed a Stryker medical treatment vehicle capable of taking a physician forward onto the battlefield to stabilize critically wounded soldiers in a mobile surgical room. Program officials intend to field the vehicle by next summer.
“I suspect that if we hadn’t done it through this forum, I would say that we would have still been five years away from fielding,” said Cavanaugh.