Breaking the mold
BY DONOVAN BURBA
PHOTOS COURTESY OF OSHKOSH CORP.
Wars drive innovation. As armed forces anticipate and then react to a host of factors—enemy strategy, unforgiving terrain, radical technological developments—conventional thinking simply isn't enough.
Just as the trench warfare of World War I sparked advancements in artillery and machine gun technology, and World War II culminated in the ultimate game-changer of atomic weaponry, so too are today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forcing the military to adapt.
As the scale of war has decreased, the need for agility has increased. That shift is not limited to the troops in the field or leaders at various defense ministries. Teams working on military projects have also had to change their strategies, moving at lightning speed to deliver lifesaving products.
The MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) family of vehicles was developed as a response to the Humvee's inability to protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the weapon of choice against invading military personnel in Iraq. The MRAPs proved effective, but transplanting them to Afghanistan posed an unanticipated set of problems.
The Afghan road network is woefully underdeveloped compared to that in Iraq, and MRAPs—which weigh between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds (18,143 to 27,216 kilograms)—were frequently getting stuck in the mud and tipping over. In one case, three U.S. Army Special Forces drowned after their MRAP rolled into a river. The straight-axle design also meant the vehicles couldn't handle many of the off-road conditions that typify travel in Afghanistan.
Soldiers needed a new mode of transport. In December 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense put out a request for proposal to design and manufacture a lighter-weight off-road vehicle that could hold four passengers and a gunner. It also had to be capable of protecting the crew from a mine or similar explosive blast from directly below.
Companies had just seven months to submit proposals, produce test vehicles and start production. And they had to do it all on spec, with no guarantee of any ROI.
“The Department of Defense basically said, ‘Put up or shut up,’” says Ken Juergens, vice president and general manager of joint programs at Oshkosh Defense, a division of Oshkosh Corp., Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA.
A retired army colonel, he acted as senior program director for what would become known as the M-ATV, shorthand for the mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle.
The project to develop the next generation of IED-resistant vehicles ended up being a textbook case of how rapidly military needs can shift and the ways in which defense companies and their project managers must adapt.
A MATTER OF DAYS
Manufacturers were required to submit a proposal, procedure plan and 1-foot-by-1-foot (30-centimeter-by-30-centimeter) armor panel for testing—all in one month's time. Once the armor was approved, teams then had only one more month to deliver two vehicles representative of their overall strategy. In addition to weight, capacity and survivability requirements, vehicles had to meet numerous secondary and tertiary provisions or the company had to explain what trade-offs were made in omitting them.
The tight schedule meant Oshkosh wouldn't have time to develop new components. Col. Juergens had to ensure his team had adequate opportunities to test its vehicle and iron out any kinks before submitting it to the government.
To make the deadline, Oshkosh drew on its strong arsenal of existing technology, including a chassis from an existing tactical vehicle, bolt-on armor and an independent suspension system that had already gone through 400,000 miles (643,738 kilometers) of government testing. Smaller elements, such as the dashboard, came from vehicles already in use, meaning that training troops in the M-ATV would be simplified.
“I compare it to if you've always driven a Ford, you know how to turn the wipers on and set the radio,” Col. Juergens says.
That built-in familiarity is one reason why he was “pretty confident” from the beginning that the team wouldn't face any major complications. Still, he knew to expect minor issues when placing brackets, braces, routing wires and the like.
Because of the time crunch, the project team took the unusual step of testing the vehicle parallel to production. In a typical multiyear development cycle, there are numerous opportunities to test and adjust. In this case, one unsuccessful round with the government would likely sink Oshkosh's chance at landing the contract.
The number of months it took Oshkosh to design, develop and start producing its M-ATVs
The number of orders received for delivery of M-ATVs to date
“Normally there's plenty of time to test,” Col. Juergens says. “In this one there was no time. We're at war.”
So the Oshkosh team hit the road, driving from Wisconsin to Nevada, where the M-ATV could be tested under desert conditions similar to those in Afghanistan. Any problems the team discovered were relayed back to the production team, which immediately worked to fix them.
It was a remarkable achievement for an industry that typically measures project milestones in years, not days, and one that required compressing the team's usual practices without sacrificing standards.
“We were taking risks, but they were smart risks,” Col. Juergens says. “The important thing was to identify potential problems before they developed into something serious.”
THE NEW BATTLEFIELD
A core team of about 60 worked with more than 100 people involved at some level across a number of departments. To stay on target, the team met at 6 every morning to go over the day's activities and establish detailed milestone charts. Because so many aspects of the project occurred simultaneously and, in the case of field testing, in different locations, the team “almost had to get to the point where we would over-communicate,” Col. Juergens says.
Another key to keeping the project on track was Oshkosh's extensive internal support structure, which included engineering, production and testing facilities. Heading into the project with those resources precluded the need to hire contract workers. Having most of the project processes within one organization also streamlined communications with the program management offices at the various government agencies with which it was dealing.
Most teams working on high-pressure projects inevitably suffer burnout and a decline in motivation. But that wasn't the case with the Oshkosh team, Col. Juergens says, because virtually everyone involved had a connection to someone in the armed forces. And when an Oshkosh subsidiary opened a production floor devoted to the vehicle—a move that allowed it to rehire hundreds of laid-off workers—U.S. flags quickly sprouted throughout the facility. That feeling of patriotic duty made it much easier for employees to sacrifice their holidays to work on the project, Col. Juergens adds.
“We wouldn't have been able to do this had the work force not been in tune with what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says.
Once the M-ATV passed the first round of military testing, Oshkosh had a mere five days to deliver three more vehicles for further testing. It did so in three days. On 2 May 2009, those vehicles rumbled through the entrance to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where they would face the rigors of simulated battlefield experience.
Less than two months later, the team's work paid off: Oshkosh was awarded a US$1.05 billion contract for 2,244 M-ATVs. That was followed by a US$1.04 billion order in July for an additional 1,700 vehicles and another smaller order in September.
But Oshkosh couldn't rest on its laurels just because it scored some major contracts. The company still had to keep to a production schedule that was just as tight as the development timeline. For three straight months, the team delivered more vehicles than promised. In September, it nailed its target of 100 vehicles per week earlier than expected. The first M-ATV hit Afghan soil on 5 October and by December—less than one year after Oshkosh submitted its original proposal—more than 1,000 M-ATVs were rolling off the production line each month. The company has received orders for delivery of 8,079 M-ATVs to date.
Normally there's plenty of time to test. In this one there was no time. We're at war.
—Ken Juergens, Oshkosh Defense, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates underscored the importance of the M-ATV project in his remarks to Oshkosh workers last November. “You all have the opportunity to work on one of the few projects where your efforts have a direct and immediate impact on men and women fighting on the front lines,” he said.
During his visit, Mr. Gates noted there will be a long-term need for vehicles such as the M-ATV and indicated that Oshkosh's ultra-efficient approach could serve as a model for similar projects in the future.
The M-ATV project, he said, “reminds us that new platforms can be developed, built and deployed in a short period of time—and the best solution isn't always the most elaborate.” PM
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