NATICK, Mass. -- When it comes to protecting the nation's Soldiers, researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are willing to go to extremes.

NSRDEC researchers are developing an Extreme Weather Fabric Test Apparatus to address shortcomings in existing test methods used to evaluate shelter textiles.

Due to mechanical limitations, current test methods are unable to accommodate the rapid flexing of fabrics at extreme temperatures ranging from minus 60 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The rapid flexing of fabrics can be caused by wind or by the act of taking down or putting up a shelter.

The new test apparatus will enhance NSRDEC's ability to simulate the effect of extreme temperatures and wind on fabrics employed in soft-wall shelter systems.

"The test fixture will be able to flex a textile and/or film at extreme temperatures, thereby aiding NSRDEC scientists and engineers in more accurately forecasting the durability of a material under severe environmental conditions," said Christian Aall, a mechanical engineer on NSRDEC's Fabric Structures Team.

The need for the testing capability came to light during a joint shelter deployment exercise. The exercise, which took place in Thule, Greenland, involved a partnership that included NSRDEC, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Science Foundation.

In addition, by more accurately simulating environmental loads, the new test apparatus will also aid in the development of new shelter materials.

"As an end goal, our team hopes to develop a new test standard based upon the fixture's design," said Liz Swisher, team leader for NSRDEC's Fabric Structures Team. "This will enable other laboratories, within government and private industry, with the ability to execute a repeatable and proven methodology, helping to better predict a fabric's long-term performance once it's been fielded."

"By leveraging this new test fixture, future shelter material selections and development will be made with greater confidence," said Aall. "New materials may be screened for suitability, and their limitations when implemented into a design may be discovered. For instance, a fabric with an integrated seam, zipper or hook-and-loop closure system may also be stressed to evaluate integrated sub-components for extreme environment survivability."

The apparatus is good news for the Warfighter.

"This apparatus will provide for more realistic fabric performance validation, and thereby benefit the Soldier with higher-performing fabric-containing equipment, specifically in the areas of durability and weight," said Aall.

"The development of this fixture will increase NSRDEC's testing capability by supporting the inspection and selection of textile solutions," said Luis Padilla, a mechanical engineer on NSRDEC's Fabric Structures Team. "This will help engineers and scientists to foresee the performance and survivability of the military deployed assets, which will result in reduction of deployment costs and increased mission readiness for the Warfighter."

"Any product with increased reliability and durability helps the warfighter in accomplishing their mission and reduces logistical burden," said Swisher.

The development of the new apparatus was made possible by NSRDEC's innovative Bootstrap Initiative. Dr. Ken Desabrais, NSRDEC's human protections administrator, conceived the Bootstrap Initiative, which was implemented to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, promote risk-taking and enable employee participation -- all while streamlining processes and minimizing bureaucracy.

"Often, as government civilian engineers, we find ourselves conducting project management duties, and are therefore limited in our ability to leverage funding for internal research and development efforts," said Aall. "The Bootstrap effort provides NSRDEC civilian engineers the opportunity to leverage their academic background by engineering a novel warfighter-supporting solution in a hands-on manner."

"The Bootstrap program has been a great way of giving us engineers empowerment to seek some ideas outside of our daily projects," said Padilla. "In addition, it has provided a gateway to utilize skills that are not necessarily essential for our job, but we are certainly passionate about, including programming, 3D modeling, and design for manufacturing. Furthermore, the effort that has been made to develop this apparatus has helped strengthen the collaboration between the Textile Materials Evaluation Team, Engineering and Fabrication Cells and the Fabric Structures Team."

NSRDEC researchers initially developed a CAD model prototype and through engineering calculations ensured it met standard requirements. NSRDEC's in-house, rapid-prototyping capabilities also played a role in prototype development.

"Following the creation of such a CAD model, we used in-house, rapid-prototyping equipment to 3D print a static display model," said Aall. "After procuring additional components and hardware, we built a functional prototype with support from the NSRDEC machine shop. In addition, a prototype user interface on a programmable microcontroller has been developed to control the electromechanical sub-systems of the test fixture."

Aall is grateful to be able to use his know-how on a team that is dedicated to the Soldier.

"The ability to leverage skills attained through personal interests in electromechanical engineering, and being able to work with a highly engaged team that is passionate about the product we are developing, is very rewarding," said Aall.

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The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.