The Washington, D.C., Auto Show isn’t where you’d expect to find the director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF). But Col. Peter Newell wasn’t there to kick tires and look at shiny sheetmetal. Instead, he was officially on hand to announce the REF’s partnership with Local Motors, an Arizona-based “disruptive” automotive company specializing in open-source design and micro-manufacturing.
Thus far, Local Motors’ best known creation is an off-road racer called the Rally Fighter. The company has also worked with DARPA on a combat reconnaissance/evacuation vehicle called the XC2V. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force is a Field Operating Agency, established in 2002 to address the service’s “systemic deficiency in providing immediate technology solutions to deployed and pre-deploying forces” – in other words, to get innovative gear to the warfighter quickly.
Ironically, it’s not Local Motors’ products that are Newell’s main interest. It’s the way the company creates them using crowdsourcing.
“I’m after their business model,” Newell affirms. “First and foremost, [Local Motors] has built a community of interest that is 30,000 engineers and designers. Imagine what I could do with 30,000 like-minded soldiers in a community of interest.”
The REF could identify problems faced by warfighters much more quickly and field solutions rapidly. The 160-strong agency does a pretty good job at present, averaging 132 days from receiving a requirement to providing the first article to the field. In 2012, the REF fulfilled 295 urgent requirements for seven Army Service Component Commands.
The most significant of these, Newell (a combat veteran and Silver Star recipient for actions in Fallujah, Iraq) believes, is the Minotaur Dismounted IED-defeat combat engineer vehicle. Essentially a robotic Bobcat, it’s the only piece of gear capable of disrupting pressure-plated IEDs for dismounted forces.
“Minotaur is the first time we’ve handed big counter-IED-like capability in a small package to the soldier,” Newell says.
The partnership with Local Motors and the adoption of its crowdsourcing platform will help bring more such lifesaving capabilities to the field quickly and at lower cost. The potential lies in the capacity of a community of interest of thousands of soldiers/engineers to quickly identify problems and generate requirements.
“I can devise a creative solution to just about any problem fairly quickly,” Newell maintains. “It’s a question of how long the problem has existed before someone [identifies] it and creates the requirement document that it takes to get started.”
Crowdsourcing accelerates the process. Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers has successfully used it to create the Rally Fighter and other vehicles without an in-house designer. A former Marine and fellow Iraq war vet, Rogers was contacted by Newell after a professor at MIT suggested the REF director take a look at what Local Motors was doing.
By leveraging the company’s crowdsourcing platform and combining it with localized micro-manufacturing techniques, Local Motors can produce small volumes of cars at one-hundredth the cost and five times faster than a traditional manufacturer, Rogers claims.
“The military [equipment] we produce will have the same metrics,” Rogers contends. “We’re organized to get problems identified faster, and when you do that you’re more focused on the solution from the beginning.”
Local Motors hopes to benefit from the relationship by eventually producing vehicles or as likely, components for the REF to address whatever challenges crop up.
“If you give the people in the military an opportunity to speak up in a place where they’re heard, you tear down this divide we have between the users of the equipment and the ‘smarty pants’ makers of the equipment,” Rogers explains.
Newell agrees. The process, which will start with building a community of interest, may evolve into something like a “hackathon” or the Army’s Rodeo at Fort Benning.
“We’d also like to find McGyver-like soldiers across the Army and give them a place to go work out their ideas,” Newell says. “Honestly, I’d love to turn it into an intramural sport.”
Structured crowdsourcing could also generate positive morale benefits, Newell adds, leveraging the “soldier for life” concept and connecting soldiers to STEM careers after military service. And it can lead them to identify meaningful requirements that an engineer might miss, Rogers asserts.
“Soldiers will say, ‘Listen to me when I tell you that I throw up every time I ride inside this vehicle and I’m combat-ineffective when I get out. I need to face forward when I ride in it. Listen to me when I tell you I’m lying on a stretcher, my gear doesn’t fit and I’m getting slapped on the arm while I’ve got an IV in it which doesn’t work.’ Our soldiers know the problems. They need to be part of the solution.”