As technological advancements increasingly render once cutting-edge capabilities obsolete in just a few years, the Army’s ability to maintain technological overmatch, and ultimately combat overmatch, is inextricably bound up in its ability to innovate—and more important, to harness innovation to rapidly develop game-changing technologies and capabilities.
Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter emphasized the important role of innovation in the U.S. Army’s ability to deliver the most technologically advanced capabilities to our soldiers. An example of one of his recent initiatives to advance innovation in the Army was the establishment of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board. Chaired by Alphabet Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, the Board is to include up to 12 members who have successfully led large private and public organizations and have excelled at innovating—rapidly identifying and adopting new technology concepts.
Among other things, the Board was tasked with advising the Department of Defense (DoD) on key areas central to successful innovation, including rapid prototyping. At the same time, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, continues advocating rapid prototyping and has suggested that the Services have the budget flexibility to “experiment with, prototype, and rapidly deploy weapon system components and other technologies without requiring those programs be tied to an existing major program.”
Delivering Innovative Capabilities Quickly, Cost Effectively
In the Army Acquisition Corps, rapid prototyping enables the material developer to support, test and field cutting-edge capabilities to soldiers in shorter time. Once developed, the prototype product may then be refined to meet very specific user needs and expectations, thereby serving as both the basis for and fruit of innovation.
Specifically, prototyping provides the Army’s Research, Development and Acquisition Communities with several advantages. First, it enables designers and engineers to move their concepts beyond the virtual visualization offered via traditional computer-aided design (CAD) models. For example, a project manager in the Acquisition Corps would have the benefit of seeing, firsthand, the “look and feel” of a potential capability long before he or she begins the acquisition process. At this point, design adjustments may be considered and critical changes may be made that improve the capability at the most cost-efficient point in the development process.
Specifically, with a physical model in hand, its form, fit and function can be soldier verified, which would likely result in fewer design changes and thereby save money. This kind of additive and iterative manufacturing saves both the time and cost typically associated with further development of patterns, molds and metals.
Moreover, rapid prototyping reduces waste and rework—the design may be rapidly adjusted, incorporating user feedback and emerging requirements. Design flaws are more readily recognized and efficiently addressed in the early stages of prototyping. This is particularly important since it enables the Army to quickly ensure that soldiers receive properly working capabilities while fully meeting capability requirements. Finally, building a prototype enables the materiel developer to understand the intricacies of a given product or system design. This understanding can inform the entire acquisition process by better positioning the combat developer to accurately determine performance requirements and provide early information to the materiel developer on systems engineering processes.
In summary, rapid prototyping serves several critical purposes within the research and development and acquisition communities. It may be leveraged to inform and influence early design and development efforts for capabilities under consideration, as well as those that have been fielded and are experiencing design issues and/or not meeting soldier needs. As such, rapid prototyping helps ensure that we provide our soldiers with the very best, innovative capabilities in the shortest time possible.
Army Rapid Prototyping Division
The Army’s Special Products and Prototyping Division (SPPD) is one of seven divisions within the Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) of the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). One of SPPD’s primary core competencies is rapid prototyping and the development of system surrogates and components to enable the Army Research and Development and Acquisition Communities to assess, test and field innovative capabilities to warfighters very quickly. Rapid prototyping has a rich history dating back to the early 1940s when the very first facilities were established at Fort Belvoir. Prototyping activities in those days focused on providing support for war efforts by rapidly building systems (and components), and this kind of full fabrication service continued until the early 1990s with the facility’s fabrication of components and surrogates for the Patriot Missile System and mine plows in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. By rapidly responding to soldier concerns in facing in-depth obstacles, the shop quickly designed and fabricated mechanical solutions to neutralize the threat. Then, in 1993, as a result of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission findings, the Model Fabrication Division (and its mission) became the NVESD Prototyping Facility. At the same time, the facility underwent a transition from a limited-production service model to a rapid prototyping service model. This shift in mission better positioned the facility to respond to emerging soldier needs and to provide the Research, Development and Acquisition Communities with the ability to rapidly generate prototypes that could be used to inform both the design and development of a product, and later, its acquisition.
By the late 1990s, the facility was fully engaged in supporting the Army acquisition community. In particular, SPPD forged a strong relationship with the Project Manager Night Vision/Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (now known as the Project Manager Terrestrial Sensors). At the time, the program manager (PM) was engaged in force modernization efforts and “digitization” of the battlefield. In particular, SPPD’s facility supported the PM’s integration of sensors on vehicles by mounting them via masts and custom brackets. These mast-mounted sensors provided critical surveillance capabilities in support of the Bosnia and Kosovo missions.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the facility provided rapid prototyping for various efforts directly supporting both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Once again, the facility played an integral role in the integration of critical reconnaissance and surveillance sensors, including the Driver’s Vision Enhancer and the Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System (LRAS3) on vehicles. Particularly during the early years of the War on Terror, each time the armor changed on a vehicle, the vehicle required a new sensor integration, and the facility was able to step in and rapidly conduct the integrations for the PM. Moreover, because the facility was involved in each integration, the machinists were able to keep pace with the various configurations and anticipate the next likely enhancement, saving the PM time and delivering support to soldiers faster and more efficiently. And, when the Army shifted to the use of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle in response to the enemy’s use of improvised explosive devices, the facility was ready to support sensor integration on these critical vehicles.
Partnering With SPPD
Today, the facility provides rapid prototyping support to various Army organizations. Troops from the field often come to the facility with a particular issue or need. Unlike the facility’s internal and regular customers, soldiers often do not have existing relationships with facility technicians. As such, the facility, via its engineer liaisons, works closely with soldiers to understand their needs and to design and develop prototypes for testing and use.
More often than not, Soldiers, like most customers, find it difficult to articulate a need without first seeing an example. To address the need, engineers and scientists deploy as uniformed and civilian science advisers to work directly with soldiers in the field via the Field Assistance in Science and Technology program. They review soldier descriptions of needs and revise them, as necessary, before sending them to and conferring with the facility technicians. Engineers then work closely with the customer team to clearly define the issue, develop a problem set, and determine options to best address the issue. The effort is collaborative, with facility members providing key subject-matter expertise and advice. Because deployment rotations are fairly frequent, problems and issues frequently are similar to those the facility previously worked on even up to 10 to 15 years earlier. Several of the technicians have worked at the facility for 15 years or more, so they often can recall the very solutions they developed numerous years prior!
Once a preliminary solution is agreed upon, the facility team develops the prototype and delivers it to the user for initial use and assessment. This initial use and assessment is one of the major value-added aspects of rapid prototyping. The user is able to “touch and feel” the product, and, in turn determine whether it meets their needs or requires further development. After the user is satisfied with the prototype, the user then decides whether to pursue funding to produce the product. When funding is secured, facility personnel work with the engineers and scientists in preparing the necessary documentation to begin prototyping once the customer approves the plan. The facility’s work is not finished once the prototype is complete. Technicians often provide assistance and training for the product, as well as field support, ensuring that the soldier can realize the full potential of the fielded product.
The facility includes five main areas: design; machining; sheet metal fabrication; welding; and integration. The designers interface directly with users, requirements developers, and the technicians to generate and document an optimal system or component design. The machining area utilizes manual and Computer-Numerical-Controlled milling and turning processes to fabricate low-quantity prototype and production-quality components. These machining processes start with large pieces of metal or composites and remove material to achieve the final size and dimensions. The sheet-metal fabrication area constructs mechanical components, enclosures and panels with capabilities to shear, bend, punch and roll many types of material. The welding area performs all common welding processes on materials from thin sheet metal up to armor plate and large steel weldments. The integration area assembles the completed items, and incorporates them into the final product, system or platform for which they were intended. This integration begins with the design phase and carries through to the end product.
In addition to the conventional techniques, the facility utilizes 3D printing or additive manufacturing processes to fabricate prototype components that can be readily transitioned to production processes such as injection molding or casting.
Supporting the Nation
Over the last decade, SPPD’s Prototyping Facility has provided support that has directly and significantly contributed to U.S. efforts both at home and abroad. Its aircraft integration efforts include design, ensuring compliance with Airworthiness Release requirements, crafting, mounting and integration of prototype experimental sensors on various aircraft, such as the Black Hawk helicopter. These sensors aid pilots by providing, among other things, improved visibility in degraded conditions, thereby enabling safer takeoff and landing.
The facility also provides support to reset and retrograde sensor systems returning from theater. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, security for large forward operating bases became increasingly important. Securing entry points and enabling situational awareness were paramount for warfighter safety and survivability. In response, scientists and engineers at NVESD rapidly developed key elements of the Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance Systems—Combined or “BETSS-C” a family of sensor systems managed by the Army’s Project Manager, Terrestrial Sensors (PM TS) and intended to provide base defense and security capabilities. Originally intended to provide perimeter security, BETSS-C’s legacy configuration was not fully adaptable to worldwide deployments, including expeditionary missions. In response, SPPD developed and supported an innovative reset concept for PM TS that was intended to not only reset the existing BETSS-C systems, but to also make them multi-mission capable, thereby infusing the system with increased capabilities that are essential for succeeding in various expeditionary missions and provide the warfighter with greater flexibility and more value from a single sensor system.
A major change to the BETSS-C family of systems was the upgrade of the Cerberus sensor system. Initially fielded in Iraq in 2007, the Cerberus is a tactical trailer with a tower sensor system that provides warfighters with surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities via a radar and a day/night sensor mounted on a readily deployable 20-foot-high tower. The facility worked with PM TS and a team of engineers to design the components and to build quality into the product at the earliest stages of design. Three kits were developed to upgrade the Cerberus trailer, thereby improving the ease with which it may be deployed to better support expeditionary missions. The facility then led retrofit activities for approximately 100 Cerberus trailers by developing and assembling the initial production kits.
In addition to supporting military efforts, the facility supports humanitarian efforts around the world. Led by a team within NVESD’s Countermine Division, the Humanitarian Demining effort spans several countries that historically have suffered from the effects of years of war, including remaining land mines and other explosive ordnance. The Countermine Division designs the systems that assist these countries with the identification and destruction of underground hazards, and the Prototyping Facility supports fabrication for systems, spares, modifications and repairs. Machinists and Countermine specialists often produce new vehicle “skins,” integrate mine removal and mine-detection sensors on vehicles, and design and produce digging devices to remove ground dirt while searching for explosive hazards. Because NVESD designs, evaluates and fabricates the prototypes exclusively in-house, it is able to rapidly deliver to countries in need these lifesaving capabilities at a lower cost compared to traditional methods.
The facility also supported U.S. homeland security efforts. A major project was the development of the long-range variant of the Cerberus tower funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The facility, working with design engineers within SPPD, and through the spiral development process, fabricated several prototype variants for use by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel. Based on testing along the southern border and feedback from agents, a final variant was prototyped, which led to DHS submitting a request for proposal and awarding a contract (to defense contractors) for the production of the Mobile Surveillance System (MSS). The MSS has been deployed along the southern border in direct support of CBP efforts and has proven essential for helping to secure the nation.
The facility also provides support within NVESD. When NVESD needed a laboratory specifically designed to support calibration efforts for various hyperspectral sensors, it called on the Prototyping Facility to assist with designing and fabricating various elements, including sensor mounts to conduct calibration and staging materials to move a sensor among the various calibration stations. The facility’s support enabled NVESD to automatically achieve bore sighting at all sensor calibration stations following the initial bore sighting. This change automates the process, thereby reducing opportunities for error and also reducing calibration cycle times from 1 week to 1 day.
To maintain its position as the world’s best army, the U.S. Army must innovate regularly, rapidly and successfully. Rapid prototyping is an integral part of innovation. At the same time, rapid prototyping also can also help in assessing solutions for a given Army requirement.
As technology advances ever faster, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain technological superiority without continuous innovation. SPPD’s rapid prototyping facility is positioned to support the Army’s Research, Development and Acquisition Communities in the integration of the Army’s innovation efforts by leveraging engineering and technical expertise to inform product design, development and transition to procurement. This support enables the acquisition community to better tailor form, fit and function to precise soldier needs. Harnessing the power of rapid prototyping will better position the Army to discover unique, cutting-edge solutions to today’s problems and develop game-changing capabilities that will shape the battlefield of tomorrow.
The authors can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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