By Claire Heininger, U.S. ArmyAugust 15, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Aug. 15, 2012) -- The Army is refining its buying methods and reaching out to small businesses in order to smooth the path for industry to participate in the Network Integration Evaluations.
Industry support is crucial to the success of the Network Integration Evaluations, known as NIEs, and Agile Process, which solicit mature technologies from both large and small businesses and put them to the test in an operational environment to determine whether they fill the Army's hardware and software needs. With three NIEs now completed, the Army is leveraging that experience and applying industry feedback in order to improve the process and its outcomes.
"We're bringing in technologies that would normally take six or seven years for us to get in the hands of Soldiers, and now are taking months," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, director of Army System of Systems Integration. "The Agile Process allows us to evaluate technologies more quickly; now we are streamlining the procurement process so we can reward those systems that are successful and field them as part of the Army network."
The service is now finalizing a plan to incorporate successful industry systems into Army materiel portfolios by aligning them with existing Programs of Record. The Army is also building a Request for Proposal, or RFP, solicitation to establish a formal mechanism to procure systems that show promise out of the NIE.
The initial RFP, in addition to continued sources sought notices, targeted for release this fall, will result in an NIE support contract award for NIE 14.1 with an option for production quantities. This will allow the Army to execute a contract option to procure production material to quickly field to Soldiers.
"While the Army has already bought certain technologies out of the NIE process, we are now taking a more systemic approach that will provide industry more visibility on how to achieve a tangible return on investment," Hughes said.
For small businesses in particular, participating in a massive Army field exercise and multi-phase process leading up to it can be a daunting proposition. The Army can assist small businesses by providing funding to offset labor and Field Service Representative costs and to produce additional system quantities needed for evaluation beyond what they can afford to bring themselves.
"From an Army point of view, small business brings a wealth of knowledge and technology," said Lt. Col. Carlos Wiley, who leads pre-NIE Lab Based Risk Reduction efforts that integrate government and industry systems prior to their field tryout with Soldiers. "They can be very agile in responding to and fixing any issues with their systems. So it's critical that we keep fostering small business to get out and look at our capability gaps to try and find a solution."
For example, during lab preparation for the October NIE 13.1 a small company was very responsive when engineers discovered integration problems between its technology and existing Army radios, Wiley said.
"Initially when we had them come in, we did not believe that they would be mature enough to be able to support and go through NIE 13.1," he said. "But every time there was an issue, they were there, and now they're ready to go in NIE."
The Army is also encouraging small businesses to bring forward their technologies in earlier stages of development so they are better prepared to participate in the Agile Process. Through avenues such as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, known as CRADAs, or Test Service Agreements, or TSAs, small businesses can obtain detailed information on existing Army systems and better understand how they might modify their systems in order to integrate into the Army network, said Scott Newman, program director for Systems Engineering and Integration for the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center.
"Once they get this information and can integrate with the network baseline, they provide great technology that can benefit Army programs," he said.
Launched in June 2011, the NIEs are semi-annual evaluations designed to quickly integrate and mature the Army's tactical communications network -- the service's top modernization priority. The events assess new network capabilities from government and industry with an operational brigade combat team to determine whether they perform as needed, conform to the network architecture and are interoperable with existing systems.
Industry interest has increased significantly since the NIEs began. In response to Sources Sought notices issued by the Army, 43 industry candidates responded for NIE 12.1, 105 responded for NIE 12.2 and 146 responded for NIE 13.1. Small businesses have been represented each time, with a peak of eight small business solutions among the 24 industry candidate systems selected to participate in NIE 12.2.
In addition to Army-hosted Industry Day outreach seminars, small businesses have actively approached the Army at forums such as conferences and other industry events seeking information on how to participate in NIEs. One such company submitted a successful candidate during NIE 12.2 and is now participating as a carryover system in NIE 13.1.
One small company that participated in NIE 12.2 was Ringtail Design, a 15-person business that contributed software known as Common Tactical Vision. The touch screen-based tool, used for mission command planning at various echelons across the brigade combat team, received positive feedback from Soldiers during the five-week evaluation.
Ringtail CEO Jeff Carpenter called the user feedback "extremely valuable" and said that with a small staff, Ringtail engineers could interact directly with Soldiers to implement changes within as little as a week. However, he has been disappointed that the Army has not moved more quickly to act on those positive results from NIE and adopt the system for fielding.
"I was hopeful that there would've been more traction," Carpenter said. "It is a lot of time, it is a lot of commitment and it costs a lot of money to participate."
Army leaders acknowledge such concerns and said they will continue to work aggressively to ensure the NIEs achieve their potential as a way to rapidly bring industry innovation into the Army portfolio.
"The NIE is an evolving and adaptive process -- the first event occurred just over one year ago," Hughes said. "The Army considers NIE participation to be an opportunity for industry to obtain first-hand feedback from its Soldier-customers in an environment not available elsewhere. Industry has provided numerous examples of how it was able to make improvements to its products based on this feedback, which comes at notable cost to the Army as well. NIE participation is a partnership to which the Army and industry both contribute."