By Timothy Rider, Army Materiel CommandFebruary 15, 2011
While reading a ski magazine in 2008, Penn State University engineering student Adam Druga had a flash of inspiration that set him on a path he called "absolutely adventurous." But it was no snow trail.
Druga's path has been that of an inventor.
Druga was reading about a new material being used to protect skiers when he fashioned his idea: He thought that combining the new material with another in just the right way would produce a lightweight, yet flexible material that could protect Soldiers from bullets and shrapnel.
Now a mechanical engineer working on a team that designs gun mounts at the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), Druga has since been discovering the truth behind the words of the icon of American invention, Thomas A. Edison: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."
Serving as a method of mopping perspiration from Druga's brow is the encouragement, training and hands-on support provided by an initiative aimed at harvesting the inventive potential in the ARDEC workforce.
Called IDEA from Innovative Developments Everyday at ARDEC, the initiative also aims at helping ARDEC remain competitive with the best innovating labs in government and industry, according to Andrei Cernasov, one of the architects of the IDEA program.
It all began as a strategic initiative in 2007 after Barbara Machak, now the Executive Director of the ARDEC Enterprise and System Engineering Integration Center, commissioned a study.
"We had over 2,000 people solving problems, or gaps in warfighter capabilities, meeting requirements, but I didn't get a sense that they all had an avenue to have their ideas/innovations heard," said Machak.
"Some who were truly innovators seemed to be able to push through and get programs started and provide a capability to ARDEC through sheer will. They just didn't take 'no' for an answer," observed Machak. "I wanted to have more of that, and allow those voices to be heard."
The study Machak commissioned was designed to answer the question, "How do we make innovation part of the ARDEC culture'"
Completed by Cindy Perazzo and Maria Allende, two Lean Six Sigma program "Black Belts," the study produced recommendations for the various elements that are now supporting Druga and other innovators at ARDEC, although the initiative is also open to other employees at Picatinny Arsenal.
The primary components include IDEA Catalysts, who directly support inventors by dispensing advice and arranging collaboration as they strive to build projects; IDEA Champions, who work with catalysts, guide the ongoing implementation and oversee various aspects of the initiative, and IDEA Hubs, which are locations for experimentation, research, collaboration and inspiration.
In September, Druga was sitting next to Ernesto Garcia as he attended an innovation class taught by Cernasov. Garcia stuck out his hand and told Druga that if he had an invention, he could help.
After the class, "I pulled (Garcia) aside, told him my idea and said, 'Hey Ernie, I have this idea about this thing, what do you think''"
Garcia, as it turns out, was an IDEA Catalyst. He encouraged Druga to register his idea into Ideas Web, a site in the ARDEC Science and Technology portal also created by the IDEA program.
Ideas Web provides an entry form that helps ideas gain momentum and also provides an auditable trail that helps with obtaining patents should they be pursued later. Garcia then began assembling potential collaborators for Druga.
Garcia initially took Druga to meet George Sudol's group, which had experience in one of the materials. Discussions with Sudol and other engineers eventually led Druga to Tim Woo, branch chief from Organic Materials Technology Branch, under the Materials Manufacturing and Prototype Technology Division, which had been experimenting with materials that had similar properties.
"He had done a lot of research in materials in order to find out how to make armor more comfortable," Woo said of Druga.
"Being able to go and talk to those people is really what makes the process work," said Druga. "Tim (Woo) gave me a lot of insight into how the materials work, but also how the testing works."
Rather than having to learn how to test an idea, Druga said he was able to learn about testing from people who conducted tests frequently.
Still, the largest portion of Druga's efforts take place at nights and on weekends while at home. Although he can meet with innovation contacts during standard office hours, his primary responsibilities during duty hours are devoted to his regular job.
At home, Druga has been applying his engineering education by "doing the math," and noodling over "different geometries." He believes he can further improve his design. Druga also has to prepare paperwork to buttress his proposal.
"The decision-makers need to know that we've done our homework," said Druga.
Druga said he estimates that $2,000 from a sponsor would be required to perform initial developmental engineering tests, which would prove, disprove, or propel his design toward further improvements.
To improve his case before a sponsor, Druga had worked with another IDEA catalyst, Doug Chesnulovitch, who said that he works with the IDEA "generators" (inventors) to help them understand that the Army wants "deliverables with quantifiable gains."
"They always ask for three things," said Chesnulovitch. "Does it offer operational improvement or make the Soldier more effective' Is it 'technically sound' so that it will perform in field conditions' Is it better and more cost effective than what currently exists'"
While he said he is not personally interested in obtaining a patent, Druga explained that a patent can be critical to move the project forward and, ultimately, that could mean better equipment for Soldiers.
Private industry is very aggressive in inventing things and obtaining patents, explained Cernasov, and once vendors have a patent, they have substantial leverage in determining prices.
Sometimes, those patents were solutions to challenges the Army posed to industry.
"That's unfortunate," said Cernasov. "There's a tremendous amount of innovation potential in our workforce."
Whether or not his project is a success, Druga said he has gained valuable experience and contacts. "I've met more people in the last few months than many people have met in ten years here. I love to meet new people. It's not an opportunity that you get just by sitting behind your desk."
The toughest challenge for Druga has been time management. "It's a big step going from working in a team environment to innovating," said Druga.
In a team setting the focus is narrow, with different members working on processes in parallel, he explained.
When innovating and trying to develop your own idea, you have to manage the same parallel processes on your own.
To get a decent design, "You have to trick your mind into looking at things from different angles," said Druga.
"You have to be your own worst enemy. You have to tear apart your own designs.
"You have to ask those questions that every naysayer would."
Yet Druga can step back and absorb the big picture. "If it's for the Soldier, it's worth it."