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News | April 20, 2016

DLA Research and Development: A Strategic Activity That Lives in an Operational Environment

By Kelly Morris, Chief, DLA Research and Development

Imagine people being transported across country by land in just minutes, at speeds over 700 miles per hour. Now think of how this game-changing innovation might be applied to logistics.

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is an “elevated tube that runs for hundreds of miles between cities, propelling passengers at near supersonic speeds,” wrote Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and chairman of Hyperloop Technologies, in “Hyperloop Is Real: Meet The Startups Selling Supersonic Travel” (Forbes, Feb 15, 2015). It is creative, innovative and definitely a game-changer — a futuristic idea residing in basic research.

Research and development at the Defense Logistics Agency is applied research, enabling supply-chain innovation that directly supports the warfighter. It is a strategic activity that lives in an operational environment. Each day, program managers in the DLA Logistics Operations’ R&D Division seek to harness new manufacturing or logistics processes and leverage emerging technologies that will empower the warfighter to be more efficient and effective.

They work with DLA stakeholders and industry to understand gaps in technologies, problem areas and disruptive technologies, and then employ sound, economic solutions to integrate into the end-to-end supply chain. R&D’s manufacturing technology — ManTech — and logistics technology — LogTech — programs are well suited for the job. R&D has employed a sound approach over the past few years and become even more strategically focused, identifying and assessing disruptive technologies appropriate for a logistics operational environment, and aligning investments to DLA priorities that support the warfighter.

R&D in the End-to-End Supply Chain

DLA R&D efforts are aligned by budget activities and program elements that support the development of a responsive, world-class manufacturing capability to meet warfighter needs throughout a defense system’s lifecycle. R&D efforts also pioneer advanced logistics concepts and business processes that provide the leanest logistics footprint, adopt best commercial practices, and develop technical solutions with risks that are acceptable in light of their potential rewards — including lower costs.

R&D spurs innovation in the operational end-to-end supply chain. From the supplier’s supplier to the customer’s customer, R&D programs at DLA support the warfighter by developing new technologies and processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Supply chain processes are reflected in the Supply Chain Operation’s Reference Model, which is the world’s leading supply chain framework, linking business processes, performance metrics, practices and people skills into a unified structure. The model keys in on five main process areas:  Plan, Source, Make, Deliver, and Return. DLA R&D makes a difference in every aspect.

Planning is a key process, and R&D program managers work with DLA stakeholders to identify key challenges and problems where R&D solutions may be viable. Sourcing is next, and R&D has projects in strategic materials, anti-counterfeiting, and microcircuit emulation. These programs support manufacturing processes and technologies that help ensure spare parts for hundreds of weapon systems will be secure and available when needed. The Energy Readiness Program looks to improve fuel quality and supports innovations that develop alternative fuels.

Although DLA is not a manufacturer, R&D programs support critical manufacturing industries, such as casting and forging, to improve quality, lower costs and reduce production lead times for spare parts. The additive manufacturing program in R&D provides potential solutions for urgent requirements for hard-to-source parts that are obsolete, back-ordered, have long lead times, or are otherwise difficult to obtain.

R&D also has a robust batteries program that innovates to reduce lifecycle costs and logistics requirements by reducing the size and weight of personal and vehicle batteries and extending run time. This program is also working on new battery designs to reduce environmental hazards. At the ground floor of many manufacturing innovations are the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Programs, which spark manufacturing capabilities that lead to prototypes in DLA ManTech programs.

Delivering capabilities to DLA’s customers is critically important. R&D efforts in this area include innovations in subsistence, clothing and textiles, and medical logistics, as well as distribution operations. Weapons systems sustainment supports innovations within DLA process areas, such as planning, tech/quality and procurement, reducing costs, developing new processes and technologies and increasing DLA’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Information supports every aspect of the supply chain. DLA needs to ensure accurate, real-time and integrated information. The Defense Logistics Information Research program promotes innovations to connect data across the supply chain from connecting the quality of specifications, to developing digital frameworks.

Strategic Alignment

Although R&D is ever-present in an operational supply chain environment, over the last few years, DLA R&D has taken a strategic perspective, focusing on game-changing, high-impact results. Investments must be strategic and support the DLA Strategic Plan. The division has developed strategic focus areas, aligned to the budget activities and program elements that support industrial preparedness. Objectives are to improving industrial base manufacturing processes, maintain viable supply sources, improve technical and logistics information and take advantage of emergent manufacturing technologies. For logistics R&D demonstrations, objectives are to enhance analysis, modeling and decision support; improve logistics processes; and capture emergent logistics R&D requirements.

Developing the Strategic Focus areas was the first step in becoming more strategically aligned to respond to the warfighter needs of today and tomorrow. In 2015, DLA R&D started to conduct annual assessments and environmental scans of disruptive technologies and game-changers that might drive an improved logistics solution for the enterprise. The team looked at new innovations on the horizon in the R&D program areas, then linked disruptive technologies to the McKinsey Global Institute’s report on “Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will Transform Life, Business and the Global Economy.” DLA senior leaders prioritized the most important technologies for DLA and focused on linking R&D investments to strategic outcomes in the DLA Strategic Plan.

In May 2015, the DLA Strategic Plan made Warfighter First its No. 1 goal, with an objective of “Leveraging DLA’s Research and Development program to infuse innovation into our solutions.” The strategic intent was now in place for R&D to work on technologies and automation in distribution operations, and 3D printing of hard-to-source and long-lead-time parts to “enhance logistics support capabilities and produce more reliable, cost-effective solutions.” The strategic assessments were a starting point, and now this approach has been integrated into the strategic culture of R&D to enable DLA senior leaders to identify and prioritize game-changing innovations linked to investments to make a difference in warfighter outcomes.

The second critical step was to listen to DLA’s partners in industry and the military services to understand challenges and issues that might require R&D solutions. Senior leader forums like Navy/DLA Day and U.S. Special Operations Command/DLA Day provided opportunities to discuss potential R&D efforts that truly support the warfighter. R&D leaders and program managers also have an open, running dialog with industry to view potential innovative solutions that support the supply chains.

Industry and the military services are also trying to crack the code on innovations such as additive manufacturing. Navy Rear Adm. Vincent Griffith, director of DLA Logistics Operations said, “We’re partnering with the military services and industry to use additive manufacturing to obtain obsolete and hard-to-source parts for the more than 2,400 weapons systems we support.”

R&D Going Forward

R&D will continue to work on the legacy ManTech and LogTech programs that support the supply chain. Additive manufacturing will continue to be a strategic priority, and DLA R&D has been moving the needle forward in both areas. Mike Scott, DLA Logistics Operations’ deputy director, said automation will help DLA improve its support.

“With the state-of-the-art technology and capabilities available in the marketplace, now is the time we need to look hard at getting DLA’s infrastructure improved to world class,” he said.

DLA Distribution could reap rewards from R&D insights at its warehouses.

“Ensuring the right technology is in our warehouses has the potential to increase DLA Distribution’s effectiveness and deliver efficiencies at the same time,” said Twila Gonzales, DLA Distribution’s deputy commander. “It’s a huge priority for us to focus on.”

Another top priority is to fund R&D efforts in anti-counterfeiting. Griffith explained, “We have undertaken some impressive efforts already to establish an in-house DNA marking capability for all microcircuits at our Electronics Product Test Center in Ohio, but we are also pursuing additional R&D efforts for marking capabilities of high-risk items.”

Another priority is to ensure a secure supply chain. This includes anti-counterfeiting technologies as well as processes to support new technologies. R&D efforts will help to better understand vulnerabilities and risks in the supply chain. Then, they can build solutions that support procurement, quality and cyber risks.

Most of the R&D budget supports traditional programs. However, strategic priorities also require an investment. For some of the priorities, R&D can use its existing budget. For other investments, like additive manufacturing, the team works with DLA Finance to align strategic priorities with funding.

The R&D shop in DLA Logistics Operations straddles both sides of the operational and strategic world. Its ManTech and LogTech programs are robust and well-suited to support the warfighter by developing new processes and technologies that support the operational end-to-end supply chain. R&D has become even more strategically focused, identifying and assessing disruptive technologies that are appropriate for a logistics operational environment, and then engaging senior leaders to identify priorities and align investments that support solutions to put the “Warfighter First.”