By Spc. Mark VanGerpen, 129th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentMay 12, 2013
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan - It's a small part that could solve a big problem.
It's a simple valve stem cover, developed by the expeditionary engineers of the Rapid Equipping Force Expeditionary Lab at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a lab dedicated to providing quick solutions to issues hampering soldiers' performance and safety in the field.
The engineers expect their prototype to save mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle tires from going flat because of broken valve stems, a problem that's not uncommon in Afghanistan's rocky terrain.
"When you go through the wadis and you dig in, those valves have no protection," said Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McLean, battalion motor sergeant, forward support company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment "Iron Rakkasans," 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
The mud and rocks in a wadi, or riverbed, have claimed valve stems on more than 50 MRAPs in the past year, said Stephen Jackson, expeditionary engineer at the REF Lab. Though the tires have built-in inflation systems, they can't maintain pressure if the valve stems break, so the tires go flat.
When that happens, it stops an entire convoy in the field, and another convoy has to be sent out to bring them in, McLean said.
It's the kind of problem the REF Lab engineers live for.
McLean brought the problem to the lab several weeks ago, and the engineers immediately began producing prototype solutions. McLean's lead MRAP already has the new valve stem covers on it.
That's the strength of the REF Lab, Jackson said: its on-base location gives Soldiers immediate access to it, and the engineers can work closely with those Soldiers to quickly develop the solutions for the problems that hamper them in the field.
"The typical product development cycle for fielding a solution to a soldier's need is pretty long stateside," said San Gunawardana, expeditionary engineer at the lab. "So the idea is that you put the engineers out in the field, and you can interact directly with the soldiers, and by having that proximity you can iterate back and forth very quickly and get the solution to the soldier in much less time."
As the lab's name suggests, solutions to issues in the field come quickly, without going through lengthy federal contract processes, which can take up to three years from the time a problem is identified to when a solution is presented, Jackson said.
Sometimes, that's just too long, Gunawardana explained.
"The pressure to turn things around very quickly and the need to do so is super important," said Gunawardana. "You see a lot of different projects, you get instantaneous feedback from the unit, and you're actually helping people. It's very meaningful work. It's very satisfying."
The valve stem cover is only one of many products the Rapid Equipping Force made possible. The REF is spearheading the installation of Integrated Blast Effects Sensor Suites into MRAPs. The system measures G forces and overpressure on a Soldier in a vehicle during an improvised explosive device blast.
With it, doctors and the medical community can analyze the data and preemptively analyze the effects the blast could have on the soldier.
The lab's engineers, working for Menlo Park, Calif.-based Exponent, Inc., have also created battery adapters that increase the usage of a handheld minesweeper from four hours to 36 hours.
They've created rain shields for satellites and custom circuit boards. They can make seismic sensors and infrared sensors, which speak two different tech "languages," talk to each other, then put them in one device to create a more sophisticated sensor with multiple applications.
And they do it all quickly.
Working with electronic warfare at FOB Salerno, the engineers recently completed a mechanism for the successful deployment of an electronic warfare device in fewer than 10 days.
U.S. Army Warrant Officer Fletcher West, electronic warfare officer, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), worked with the engineers while they created a prototype for the device and was impressed by both the process and the results, which arrived much quicker than it could have using normal processes.
"[It was] much faster, more convenient because I could actually interface with a person instead of a piece of paper," West said. "I actually saw the prototype while it was being made, so corrections were being done in the process of creating the official prototype that we had."
The face-to-face interaction between soldiers and the engineers helps the engineers understand the problem and how best to solve it, Jackson said.
"Soldiers come by all the time," said Army Master Sgt. William Pascual, operations noncommissioned officer, Rapid Equipping Force. "I don't think any other entity out here goes to the soldier and gets the solution for them as quick as we do. We get the ideas from them, and there's a rapid turnaround in getting them their much-needed solutions for their jobs out in the field."
That rapid turnaround can be critical to soldiers in the field, Gunawardana said.
The valve stem covers are a perfect example. The Army is working on a permanent solution to the problem, Jackson said, but whether the lab's design is picked up as the solution or a new one is implemented, the projected deployment date is sometime in 2014.
Until then, the REF Lab has the problem covered.