It’s no secret that the Pentagon’s major weapons systems have a habit of spiraling out of control, both in terms of cost and schedule. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has some ideas on how to nip the problem in the bud — and open up competition too.
DARPA’s researchers want to figure out a way to bring the typical weapons systems’ development time from 10 years to two years, by following the lead of the IT industry. The agency’s Advanced Vehicle Make (AVM) project is focused on — as the name implies — vehicles. But its researchers are trying to develop a framework that could work for other big Pentagon systems too.
Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, AVM’s deputy program manager, said one huge reason programs tend to exceed their budgets is that they take so long to complete. And the reason they take too long is they have to be close to fully-assembled before designers can see whether they work properly.
“So how do we currently design these big, complex systems? We do it the same way we’ve been doing it for over 50 years,” he said. “We break down the systems we need, typically along engineering disciplinary lines. This is a power system; this is a thermal system; this is a drive system, for example. And we make sure that all the parts are the best possible for their individual tasks. And then we put it all together, and we build it. After we build it, we test it to see if it works the way we expected. And of course, invariably, it doesn’t, so we have to go back and redesign, rebuild, retest and so on. That takes a lot of time and a lot of money to iterate like this.”
That process has been what it’s been, Wiedenman said, by necessity. Up until now, there hasn’t been a way to know how the millions of components of a high-tech weapons system would work together without actually building one.
New concept to develop products
That’s the challenge DARPA is trying to solve. They’re working to build a set of software tools that would let the Pentagon and its contractors develop products with a concept called “correct-by-construction.” Instead of taking up the resources of a factory floor to build a prototype and successive test models, a product works the way it’s supposed to the first time it rolls off the assemble line.
Wiedenman said the constructors of other innovative products already have shown it’s possible.
“We’ve taken our inspiration from the integrated circuit industry, which went through this same sort of transformation about 30 years ago by building a set of design tools in the integrated circuit world called electronic design automation,” he said. “Integrated circuit designers were able to create these kinds of correct-by-construction designs, helping to maintain a 24-to-36-month product cycle that has really helped to sustain the massive growth in that industry ever since.”
Last week, DARPA issued a solicitation to industry to try to put the idea into practice through a “forge” that can build pretty much anything. It wouldn’t be a factory as such: the participants in the process would be smartly distributed across existing manufacturing capabilities across the country.
DARPA calls the project iFAB, or Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits. Software tools would not just decide how to design a product, they’d take a project’s requirements in from one end, and answer the kinds of detail-oriented questions that right now take years to figure out and develop: What kind of machining tools would it take to build the system? What would human beings need to do? What order do processes need to be done in?
But DARPA isn’t just trying to build a flowchart for how the process would work. They want to build an actual vehicle, and they picked one the military has a true need for.
DARPA to test concept with Marines Corps
The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was supposed to be able to take Marines from ships to shore, and then move on land like a tank. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended the EFV’s cancellation earlier this year after the Pentagon sank $3 billion into the program because of cost overruns.
But the requirement hasn’t gone away. The Marines still are trying to build a vehicle that can meet their needs through the traditional acquisition process. Wiedenman said DARPA wants to test its new techniques in parallel.
“Using the Marine Corps amphibious combat vehicle requirements set, we will run a series of design challenges, reach out to a broad crowd of people with design expertise,” he said. “These challenges will increase in complexity until we design a full ACV, a full amphibious combat vehicle, and then we will build it in the iFAB foundry.”
The Marine Corps is a willing partner in the effort. They’ve supplied all of their requirements documents to DARPA, and according to Paul Eremenko, the project manager for the DARPA effort, the Marines have agreed to consider buying whatever the research agency produces.
“We are going to build a vehicle — we’re going to build a vehicle to the [Marine Corps’] requirement set,” he said. “And part of our agreement is that they will consider it as part of their decision for moving forward in the program, as part of their low-rate initial production decision, as well as perhaps the long-term full-rate production decision for the (Amphibious Combat Vehicle).”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.