Transitioning a technology prototype from a U.S. Army laboratory to the Soldier on the ground is filled with potential obstacles.
Developing a manufacturing process to move from a handful of units to full production in the industrial base, while maintaining affordability, is a frequent challenge. Another potential issue is finding companies in the defense industrial base that have the expertise and production capability necessary to make an item. Even if the new idea is an improved iteration of an existing piece of equipment that has been previously manufactured, it may be too expensive to produce in large numbers.
To assist the Army research and development community in overcoming these challenges, the Army Manufacturing Technology Program steps in. Its team provides funding to close manufacturing and affordability gaps by working with the Army’s organic industrial base as well as private industry. When reviewing proposals for which to provide expertise and funding, the ManTech team focuses on Army priorities of innovation, modernization and affordability. ManTech exists to fund the development of manufacturing processes for items that are beyond the risk of industry and Army program offices.
For a technology to become relevant and successful, the Army must be able to produce and manufacture it in the required quantities at a price that makes it economically viable for programs of record. If these criteria are not met, it becomes LOST, or left-on-the-shelf technology. Transition is the central tenant of ManTech.
A major element of successful transition is affordability. In order for new technologies to transition, they must reach the “threshold of affordability.” The unit cost, at production quantities, needs to be within the reach of acquisition program managers. Every normal manufacturing process results in unit-cost reduction with each subsequent production lot. Manufacturers get better at producing their products with each production run; however, sometimes that does not move the technology far enough down the affordability curve to meet the PM’s unit-cost goals. ManTech enables a step-function drop in production cost that accelerates that cost-reduction curve while leading industry to take risks beyond what they would take on their own. Investments in new manufacturing technologies result in making these companies more competitive in the face of foreign competition.
The Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which serves as the program manager for ManTech, addresses imperatives in each of the science and technology portfolios from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology. With an annual budget of about $60 million, ManTech pays dividends in delivering decisive edge on the battlefield. As researchers focus on innovation, ManTech becomes a critical combat enabler to bring potential capabilities into reality.
The core focus investment areas for Army ManTech include: power and energy; radar, sensors and electronics; munitions and warheads; air and ground vehicle structures and protection; additive manufacturing; Soldier and medical products. The program has enabled Army researchers and industry manufacturers to design and produce essential Soldier capabilities, including lighter body armor, stronger ballistic protection in helmets, and digital sensors that allow night-vision devices to be positioned remotely.
SUPPORT TO THE SOLDIER
LOW-LIGHT LEVEL SENSOR
Modernization is a key imperative from Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley. The ManTech investment in the Low-Light Level Sensor project addresses this need while ensuring the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Warfighting Challenges of exercising mission command and developing situational understanding are met for Soldiers.
Night-vision devices are crucial to Soldiers across an array of missions, mounted and dismounted, to provide the capability for survivability, maneuverability and lethality. In order for the Army to retain “ownership of the night,” emerging vision systems will require novel electronics that enable multifunction sensing and digital, low-light level devices, including conformal displays that provide the same or better performance as the current, traditional image intensifier tubes.
The Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center has demonstrated a major advancement in technology maturity through this four-year effort. The project focuses on replacing traditional image intensifier tubes with digital sensors that allow for remote use and image capture, image processing and better performance at the lowest light levels. It addresses key manufacturing metrics by increasing production, optimizing individual components for better performance and automating production steps. LLLS will reduce unit costs by greater than 75 percent as well as decrease lifecycle costs, which will allow for more widespread implementation of this technology.
The increased performance and reliability of the sensor system has resulted in user acceptance and a multitude of cross-service transition paths, including the AH-64 Apache, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter helmet and forward-looking camera, and as a leading candidate for the future Enhanced Visual Acuity system for the Naval Air Systems Command. The LLLS has transitioned to full-rate production, and the first fielding was with the 1st Battalion, Apache 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
ENHANCED COMBAT HELMET
Before ManTech, the Army’s technology for manufacturing helmets was more than 30 years old and not adaptable for fully incorporating new materials. DoD turned to the S&T community and the ManTech program for an improved helmet. The Army and U.S. Marine Corps are now fielding the Enhanced Combat Helmet.
The Army helmet fabrication goal was to develop an entirely new methodology for mass producing complex shapes by combining layers of different thermoplastic materials. Researchers pioneered an innovative molding technology, a preform process that reduces touch-labor by as much as 40 percent and waste by as much as 70 percent.
Army material researchers developed, executed and transitioned manufacturing methods that had precluded the use of Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. This reduced costs and increased ballistic and fragmentation protection by 35 percent while maintaining similar weight.
The ManTech program allowed the Army to serve as a catalyst to stimulate industry into unconventional ways of adopting these new materials for ballistic protection. New thermoplastic-based composites are inherently more expensive, so handling them, reducing the waste associated with the process to form them, and maximizing their benefit in terms of how they are formed into the ultimate part is critical.
A NATIONAL PRIORITY FROM PRESIDENT OBAMA
The Obama administration has identified advanced manufacturing as a key initiative for the future of the American economy and national security. The federal government established the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation in December 2014, when the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act was signed into law. The Department of Commerce oversees this multi-agency initiative that has a core focus on a series of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes.
The overall Army ManTech strategy for engagement with MIIs is to accelerate manufacturing research and development through direct engagement with institutes; leverage institute consortium members to transition technology across the industrial base; and broaden workforce development and science, technology, engineering and mathematics impact by coordinating with MII outreach initiatives.
As the Army continues to develop more complex systems that combine multiple scientific and engineering disciplines, manufacturing technology will continue to be imperative to successful transition of advanced technologies from the lab to the field.
The Army’s ManTech program, through specific investments in core areas as well as supporting the president’s advanced manufacturing initiatives and the NNMI, continues to be a vital tool for delivering capabilities for Soldiers. As the program focuses on the future fight, the priorities of produciblity and affordability are at the forefront of delivering manufacturable technology solutions that enable decisive overmatch for American Soldiers.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense