Trends impacting military and defense engineering

  • 07-Nov-2010 01:41 EST
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“It’d be convenient for [defense customers] to plug into an electrical grid available all around the globe, but that’s probably not likely,” Andy Hove, President of Oshkosh Defense, said at the recent SAE ComVEC. “For the conceivable future, the one single fuel source that is going to be readily available around the world is petroleum. So what you want to do is get a system out there that consumes as little of that as you possibly can.”

“All of you older guys out there, including myself, are you on Facebook? Do you tweet? Do you have an iPad?” asked Donald Verhoff, Executive Vice President of Corporate Engineering and Technology at Oshkosh Corp. and moderator of the Global Executive Leadership Panel during the recent SAE Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress (ComVEC). “Because that’s what these younger [engineers] are doing; that’s where they’re coming from. And the vehicles and the interface of those kinds of equipment, that is exactly where we’re going.

“As organizations, we have to support that because it radically improves the efficiency of their work and puts them in a position of, ‘This is a fun thing to do. It’s not just engineering.’”

Among the many trends discussed by the industry leaders participating in the panel was the challenge—and importance—of attracting young people to the engineering profession and, more specifically, to the military and defense businesses.

“Within the military business, engineers have to be thinking forward and not be encumbered by the past,” said Gary Slack, President of U.S. Combat Systems, BAE Systems. “I think there’s a new breed of engineer that needs to come in, that is unencumbered by that past. Think about the soldiers that are out there using our equipment—they are 18, 19, 20, 21 years old; they’re not 45, 50, 55 years old out in the field. Well, the folks designing these things generally are in the older age group thinking about what they did in the past.”

“The challenge for an engineer working in defense, and we hear this a lot when we bring in new engineers from another industry is ‘You’re really pushing to be much more horizontal than vertical,’” shared the President of Oshkosh Defense, Andy Hove. “Everyone has their particular functional discipline—whether you’re a mechanical engineer, a systems engineer, or an electrical engineer or hydraulics engineer—but because of the array of challenges we’re facing, we don’t have enough people or enough time to allow any one particular engineer to rest in their comfort zone.”

Hove commented that some of the best solutions are coming out of the anthropological disciplines. “If you’re not horizontal enough to know where else to look for some of the solutions, you won’t be able to respond quickly enough to a very rapid cycle of understanding customer requirements and getting it out there,” he said.

Compression of time and resources

All of the expert panelists agreed that the ability to cost-effectively decrease time to market is absolutely critical in today’s environment.

Discussing his company’s systems engineering loop that is occurring on increasingly rapid design cycles, Hove said, “When I say rapid design cycle, I’m not talking shrinking the design cycle from five years to three years to two years; I’m talking about shrinking it from 12 months to 6 months to 3 months. That’s the kind of rapidity that our customer in defense challenges us with.”

With design cycles being compressed and defense budgets shrinking, companies are expected to do more with less. That means minimizing one-off solutions and maximizing the use of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) principals. It also means adapting existing technologies and subsystems for applications that are beyond their original scope.

“You’ve got to reach out and find those technologies that exist and find different ways to use them so that you’re not recreating that cost cycle,” said Slack of BAE Systems. “The past eight years in the defense market, there has been plenty of opportunity for all of us to play in this field and to develop some new products; that’s changing,” he added, noting that there will be fewer new-start vehicle programs in the near future. “Upgrading existing vehicle systems and platforms is more the trend.”

Regis Luther, Vice President of Navistar Defense, provided a comparison of MaxxPro models to illustrate the modification point. The MaxxPro Base and the MaxxPro Base DXM look the same, but the DXM/Rolling Chassis version has three times more suspension travel, the tires are 6 in (152 mm) bigger, and the engine torque is 50% higher—“all that while we decreased the turning radius by almost 15%. And we did that inside of three months and then built 1100 trucks again in three months,” he stressed. “That is what the military currently demands of the defense contractor, that kind of response.”

This responsiveness is particularly important once a vehicle is “in-theater,” Luther said. “Similar to what you see on your cars from one model year to the next—things move around—that’s what’s done in the military vehicles, but it’s done on a shorter, compressed cycle,” he explained. “And then kits are produced and in the design of the kits, care is taken to make sure they can be retrofitted to the trucks in an efficient manner. The vehicles are continually upgraded to reflect an asymmetric warfare and the changing needs of the military.”

The need to continually modify vehicles over a long period of time requires that new systems be modular and upgradeable, both from a power and a mobility standpoint.

“These systems need to be around for 25 to 50 years—existing platforms are on average 30 years old,” Slack said. “These are big, multimillion dollar systems that we’ve got to be able to design smartly, and say when technology catches up, we’re going to be able to insert this without decreasing the performance of the existing system that we designed.”

Commonality between vehicle systems is an issue that extends beyond the defense industry, affecting engineers in the other commercial-vehicle segments just the same. “People say there’s different technology in trucks than there is in combat systems,” Slack said. “That’s true, but space, weight, and power are all problems that exist with all of these vehicles. We’ve got to look beyond the system and design to best understand the impacts and advantages across several vehicles. It’s not just about the one issue or the one system anymore.”

Partnering with the enemy

A theme brought up by industry leaders at more than one ComVEC executive panel was the need for increased partnering—even if that means sharing secrets with long-time rivals.

“Sometimes we’re competitors, sometimes we’re partners,” said Slack, commenting on the trend toward increased competition, yet more strategic partnering. “Your number one competitor in some cases is now a supplier, partner, or teammate. When you’re competing, the toughest thing you want to do is say, ‘Hey, come on LeBron, come on Dwyane Wade, let’s join the same team.’ That’s a lot of egos in one room, [but] we all know it’s the right thing to do.”

Oshkosh engineers struggle with the same issue. “I know from an engineering standpoint, the question comes up, ‘Should I be giving these guys those drawings? Should we be supplying this information? They are our competition,’” Verhoff said. “So it is a very difficult process as far as what do you supply to whom. And of course, the thing that comes into play is our legal people get involved, which always becomes an additional effort, shall we say.”

Despite such challenges, the companies acknowledge that sharing technical data is sometimes necessary to meet time, cost, and technology constraints, to each company’s benefit. In going through this teaming process, or even setting up joint ventures, companies are oftentimes educating their future competition.

Greater movement of personnel between companies is “more pervasive now than it’s ever been,” according to Slack. “As the industry consolidates and we’re all doing similar things, you’re probably going to see more of that” in the future.

Evidence of this trend was found on the panel itself; Luther, for example, was employed by BAE Systems before moving to Navistar Defense in 2009.

Time to innovate

Michael Bolon, Senior Vice President of Enterprise Strategy and Chief Technical Officer at General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), presented three key trends affecting the industry: reducing development risk and time, design to cost, and innovation on demand.

“If you think about the irony of this, the first two topics require a lot of process and a lot of discipline. Well, that tends to stifle innovation unless you give people an opportunity to think about their role differently,” he said, noting that in mid-October GDLS was opening its Maneuver Collaboration Center (MC2) in Sterling Heights, MI, as a forum to allow people to do just that.

“When you think about innovation in our industry, it’s really a collaboration of the customers, the users, the whole supply chain, the internal people in the companies, and academia,” Bolon said. “So how do you make that happen? It starts with creating a different environment. Letting people know that, ‘Yes, we are high process once we start down the development road, but we need some ideas to explore before we launch into that process to see what better ways there are to solve problems.”

MC2 is outside of the GDLS firewall and is self-contained, capable of hosting innovation meetings as well as lab testing of hardware and software, complete systems, and the whole vehicle.

“We mentioned the need to be free and open; well, you can’t be free and open if everything is restricted,” Bolon said. “This has got all the models and simulation in network, but it’s firewalled off from all the things that have got to be protected. So if somebody’s got an idea or a technology, ‘Hey, bring it in. See if it works.’”

The goal is to put an idea through its paces in an accelerated process so the company knows within 30 days whether or not it is feasible. “The idea is to get them into hardware as soon as possible,” he added. “That’s what the warfighters really need. They don’t need something in 10 years yet. Those things are important in time, but mostly it’s about what they need in the near term.”

Oshkosh’s Verhoff agreed that innovation—and specifically, finding the time for it—is a big concern for engineering organizations.

“You spend lots of time putting your timelines together, yet the device or system you’re designing requires some level of innovation, and that innovation takes time. It’s difficult to plan and schedule, and all organizations that have large engineering groups have to come to terms with those conditions, especially these days when development cycles have gone from years to months,” Verhoff said. “Speed has been thrust into the military environment to the point where all of us really have to struggle with the effort, but I think as a group we’re doing extremely well.”

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