ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Transitioning a technology prototype from an Army engineer's laboratory to the Soldier on the ground is filled with potential obstacles.
To overcome challenges associated with manufacturing Soldiers' equipment, from helicopters to helmets, the U.S. Army enlists the Manufacturing Technology Program, commonly known as ManTech.
Andy Davis, ManTech program manager with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, said his team is focused on addressing issues in affordability and producibility.
"[Scientists and engineers] develop technologies in the labs. They can make one or two [prototypes] in the lab, but they can't make them in quantity," Davis said. "ManTech bridges that gap. In terms of the Warfighter impact, it helps get items more quickly to the [field]."
Projects average three years in the program, and ManTech typically has 25 to 30 in process, Davis said. Each project ranges from $1 million to $7.5 million.
RDECOM manages ManTech on behalf of the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, which has overall responsibility for the Army's program.
The command's research laboratory and six research, development and engineering centers each have a ManTech manager. They coordinate with project managers to execute individual projects.
ManTech focuses on three thrust areas: enabling affordable S&T development for new capabilities, addressing current systems, and advanced manufacturing initiatives.
S&T Development for New Capabilities
The first focus area develops manufacturing methods that deliver new capabilities to Soldiers. These efforts focus on reducing the cost of manufacturing or building a new process.
A common manufacturing issue for the Army is finding companies in the defense industrial base that have the expertise or capability necessary to make an item, Davis said.
"It's a new technology that directly benefits the Soldier, but there's no production capability," Davis said. "Even if it's similar to something that's been produced in the past, it's too expensive to make it affordably to be able to outfit Soldiers with it."
Davis explained that ManTech addresses S&T challenges that are beyond the level of risk that an Army program manager or industry are willing to take. ManTech works with the Army's organic industrial base (depots, arsenals and ammunition plants) as well as private industry.
"The PM might say, 'This is too risky for my program right now, but if you could bring the cost down, I would implement them.' Industry might say, 'This is a good idea, but there's not a market yet for this so we're not willing to put the money in it to demonstrate this process,' " Davis said.
The Chip Scale Atomic Clock is one example where ManTech helped to develop a product by funding a new manufacturing process, he said.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstrated the original prototypes, and the Army recognized the benefit of using a microchip-sized CSAC to allow Soldiers to communicate in areas without GPS service. The CSAC allows Soldiers to maintain or re-synch communications devices faster because it does not rely on satellites for timing.
Although atomic clocks are common in commercial communications networks, the Army needed a much smaller version that could be integrated into a configuration that Soldiers could use in a tactical environment.
Because industry did not have a market to produce the small atomic clocks, the Army, Air Force and Office of the Secretary of Defense put money into the project. Through the military's investments and the maturation of the technology, costs have decreased from thousands of dollars to less than $300 per unit with a production rate of 20,000 units per year.
Three vendors have been awarded ManTech contracts for production, and the commercial sector, including the oil and gas industry, has shown interest. Competition within industry also contributed to lower prices.
"It's a capability that didn't exist. The limitation was the manufacturing process. We enabled that capability through both technology development and the ManTech Program," Davis said. "We now have three sources within industry because of the way the program was set up.
"We are able to buy this capability, which didn't exist before, at a much lower price than if we had let industry figure it out."
Addressing Current Army Systems
In addition to enabling new technologies, the ManTech Program addresses another costly area for the Army -- operating and sustaining existing platforms and equipment. Davis said ManTech searches for S&T solutions to reduce costs through improved manufacturing processes.
The Kiowa Portable Alignment System, managed within RDECOM's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., is enabling field alignment of the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter without large non-portable, alignment fixtures at Corpus Christi Army Depot, Texas.
The current process to determine whether the helicopter is within acceptable alignment, it is shipped it from theater to Texas. The emerging technology uses a portable, state-of-the-art laser measurement device that can be used in combat field conditions.
"You have different points on the helicopter that you've calibrated to and that scans the helicopter to tell if it's twisted or not," Davis said. "You can also use it for retrofit to locate exact points to be drilled. Enabling them to have that capability to reduce the repair and sustainment costs is part of what we do in working with the organic industrial base."
Advanced Manufacturing Initiatives
ManTech's third focus area encompasses a significant shift in how the Army approaches manufacturing.
The Army plans to provide manufacturers with the specifications for a part in a three-dimensional format instead of the current standard two-dimensional technical data package.
In essence, the Army hopes to move from 2D drawings to 3D computer-aided design, or CAD, packages.
Because the manufacturing community works with 3D data, there are added costs when vendors must take the Army's 2D TDP and convert it to a 3D CAD package. The proposed changes would save time and money for the Army.
"It's a cultural shift. It's an underlying enterprise approach to how we do manufacturing," Davis said. "Think about what you can do with the data once you have it. You can use that data to sustain the system.
"If you have the assembly steps, you can use that in reverse for disassembly. All the layers in the supply chain are on the same page with respect to manufacturing data."
Davis said the ManTech team has spent the last year-and-a-half informing its transition partners -- the Army's program executive offices and S&T community -- of the program's benefits.
ManTech is also looking to expand its efforts to other Army S&T organizations outside RDECOM, including the Medical Research and Materiel Command, Space and Missile Defense Command, and the Corps of Engineers. Davis said this will broaden the program's mission and address Army needs and requirements, not just RDECOM technologies.
"There are pockets in the S&T community who understand," he said. "We went to every PEO that has a mission requiring manufacturing. We solicited from them. What are their manufacturing needs? What areas can we help them with?"