The U.S. Military Academy has 13 academic departments cadets can choose majors within, but regardless of which academic program they choose they are required to take an engineering sequence prior to graduation.
Non-engineering majors who choose the systems engineering sequence take three classes during their time at the academy. The first class teaches them the systems design process and the second introduces them to math modeling and data analysis. In the third course, cadets use the skills they learned in the first two, apply them to a real-world problem and complete a mini-capstone project.
This year, three cadet groups from the systems engineering sequence worked on projects sponsored by Lockheed Martin and at the conclusion of their research competed in the 8th annual Sustainment Innovation Competition. During the annual competition, cadets and midshipmen from West Point and the U.S. Naval and Air Force Academies present Lockheed Martin-sponsored projects to a panel of judges.
The competition is typically held at the Lockheed Martin facility in Virginia each April, but due to COVID-19 it was held virtually this year on April 14.
“While this is the eighth year that Lockheed Martin has sponsored this competition across the academies, we were glad that all the teams and judges helped make the first virtual format a success to provide the opportunity for all to interact with the cadets and midshipmen on their outstanding projects,” said Marilyn Gaska, a Lockheed Martin Fellow and chief engineer who oversaw the competition. “The Army teams were highly engaged with the Lockheed Martin subject matter experts and made trips to work with Army operational customers. We congratulate them on their superb performance.”
While 11 of the 12 West Point cadets who took part were non-systems engineering majors, the Navy and Air Force teams were made up of midshipmen and cadets who are majoring in systems engineering, retired Col. Michael Parrish, an instructor in the Department of Systems Engineering at West Point, said.
Despite their comparatively minimal experience in the field, West Point’s teams placed first, third and fourth out of nine teams.
“We’ve learned a lot of things in just three short classes that we’ve had,” Class of 2020 Cadet Jon Lowe, whose team placed third, said. “By the end of this course, I felt like I had another major even though I didn’t. It always feels good to beat Air Force and Navy. So, West Point took the cake on that one … We were in the top of the batch.”
Lowe, a human geography major, teamed up with three economics majors to look at how Lockheed Martin can upgrade the logistics network it uses to repair Army aircraft and supply parts for maintenance as it prepares for future battlefields.
Their research included tours of Army facilities in Maryland, Texas and Washington as they worked to link together the needs of the Army and Lockheed Martin.
West Point’s winning team included two cadets majoring in engineering psychology, one defense and strategic studies major and the lone cadets majoring in systems engineering who competed from the academy. The team looked at how to improve the communication between different Lockheed Martin entities as they make purchasing decisions related to lifetime buys, which requires the company to buy parts in bulk if they still have use for them when the manufacturer stops making them.
“We were trying to at first construct a whole new algorithm that Lockheed Martin could operate on and make lifetime buys off of,” Class of 2020 Cadet Kimberly Monterroso, an engineering psychology major, said. “We thought that’s what our task was. But really, this epiphany that we had was when we figured out this was more of a communication and a management type problem. We just needed to change the culture of how things are working now. We don’t have to come up with some mathematical algorithm.”
The third project asked cadets to help develop a world-class logistics program for Lockheed Martin’s Lexington, Kentucky warehouse. The team includes an engineering psychology major, a physics major, an international relations major and a psychology major.
The team was able to travel to Lexington to tour the facility and also met with their client via video chat to complete the project.
“They struggled with implementing automation throughout their processes,” Class of 2020 Cadet Mark Kate Beachler, an engineering psychology major, said. “A lot of it was analog, handwritten and just a lot of room for human error. We recommended that they use automation in the form of passive RFID, so it’s just being able to scan items in and out and then have a more successful way of keeping inventory of their warehouses.”
Along with being underdogs due to their lack of systems engineering experience, the West Point teams had to work through the added challenge of completing their projects remotely due to COVID-19. All three teams had to battle through the fact that team members and their clients were spread across multiple time zones throughout the country.
They then had to present their projects to the judges and take questions over video chat because the in-person competition had been canceled.