Innovative, collaborative, impactful: Dstl release five-year corporate strategy

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has published its Corporate Plan detailing how it will continue to play a vital role in protecting the people of the UK by providing solutions for defence and security over the next five years.

The purpose of Dstl within the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is to deliver high impact science and technology (S&T) in support of the UK’s defence, security and prosperity.

Demand for Dstl’s services is set to increase to over £700m in FY2019-202 – a rise of £150m in the past two years, which reflects the growing need for S&T services that can provide high impact advice and solutions to a diverse range of threats.

The document sets out Dstl’s ambition that by 2024 it will be recognised as a Centre of Excellence for UK Defence & Security S&T.

This will be achieved through the anticipation of future S&T potential and delivering game-changing capability that provide strategic advantage over adversaries.

The Modernising Defence Programme, through the phrase ‘technology-led modernisation’, reinforced the importance of innovation and technology in the sphere of defence. This is also true in relation to UK security and fight against terror.

In 2018, Dstl underwent a strategic diagnosis of its environment and as an organisation. The analysis highlighted three strategic objectives against which Dstl aligns the work it does:

  • Through S&T, shape the future of defence and national security via relentless focus on our customers’ challenges and needs
  • Ensure defence and security can exploit the best science and technology capabilities on demand
  • Become an agile organisation that is fit for the future

It is here where Dstl will focus its efforts to achieve its vision. Gary Aitkenhead, Dstl’s Chief Executive, explained: “Dstl’s purpose remains to deliver high-impact Science & Technology for the UK’s defence, security and prosperity. This delivery continues to be against the backdrop of a rapidly changing defence and security environment. These changes are fast moving and wide-ranging; from the changing threat environment to budget demands on us and our customers – all of which we must continue to respond to as an organisation.

“This presents challenges but also great opportunities for Dstl as the benefits of S&T for defence and security become increasingly apparent.”

Dstl have recognised the need to be a step-change in terms of introducing S&T into thought processes across defence and security thinking.

It is envisaged that creating a greater level of trust with Dstl’s customers will result in exerting a greater level influence on how and where S&T can support their requirements, with a focus on high impact delivery and on future exploitation. Improved communications and real effort to get Dstl recognised internationally as a brand in its own right are seen as key to achieving this.

Also identified as part of the strategy is the continuing need for Dstl to increase its effectiveness in collaborating with its partners to fulfil its role as capability steward for the MOD.

The acceleration of S&T innovation and investment in non-Defence and Security sectors requires Dstl to constantly refine the capabilities required for the long term, and to enhance its approach to collaboration and partnering.

This will enable the organisation to guide and harness the leading-edge innovation and expertise necessary to provide sustained UK Defence and Security capability advantage.

The report states that in order to sustain quality delivery, Dstl will seek to become much more agile, with improvements and investment to be made across the organisation including its leadership, accountability and governance, infrastructure and investment in people.

Dstl plans to develop both its internal capability and exploitation of the external supply chain to bring together the best possible S&T services to support its customers.

In terms of future investment, Dstl are midway through an extensive capital programme required to sustain and enhance specialist infrastructure on long-term core sites. An Internal Portfolio team has been established to ensure Dstl is able to optimise current investments.

The team is responsible for co-ordination, prioritisation and oversight of Dstl’s portfolio of internal programmes and projects. To support the capital plan and future operations of the Dstl estate, the organisation will review and refresh our infrastructure strategy. This will deliver a long-term vision that will include fixed infrastructure and services including Information Technology.

Mr Aitkenhead said: “We have seen a growing demand from customers for our advice, assurance and research. We are proud to have delivered affordable and effective solutions to our customers that have saved lives and money, as well as supporting the growth of the UK economy.

“Our teams and experts are the people best placed to identify areas where we can innovate, prioritise activity, challenge customers, communicate and drive the organisation forward. Our strategy gives us a shared set of priorities but will increasingly empower our people to create impact.

“I am proud to lead Dstl as we continue to provide solutions to the challenges of defence and security and wider Government through high-impact S&T.

“Our people remain at the heart of our and the UK’s capabilities, whether on operations today, or preparing for those of tomorrow.”

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DIO’s infrastructure projects offer construction career gateway

In bid to boost construction numbers through social value, DIO and Kier VolkerFitzpatrick are providing opportunities for apprentices and local students to gain an insight into a career in the construction industry.

The US Visiting Forces Infrastructure Programme (UIP) is made up of several focused projects to develop infrastructure at various RAF bases, which are used by the US Air Force. The most advanced of these is the RAF Lakenheath F-35 programme.

RAF Lakenheath will be the first permanent international site for US Air Force F-35s in Europe and construction began in July to prepare the airbase for the arrival of two new squadrons of US F-35s in 2021.

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) awarded a contract worth £160 million to the Kier VolkerFitzpatrick joint venture (KVF) in November 2018 to deliver critical infrastructure at the Suffolk airbase.

At the height of construction, it is expected that there will be up to 700 people on site supporting the programme that will see the delivery of a flight simulator facility, a maintenance unit, new hangars and storage facilities.

It is envisaged that the project will boost the local economy but DIO and contractors KVF are keen that the project should also strengthen and support the local community.

In 2017, Kier commissioned a research report into the image and recruitment crisis facing the built environment. The majority of the parents surveyed, 73 per cent, said they would not want their child to consider a career in the construction sector as they view the work as manual, poorly paid and not for girls.

The skills shortage continues to maintain its grip over the construction industry, with the sector requiring 400,000 recruits each year to keep up with demand and to meet its ongoing requirements.

DIO is supporting KVF’s social value manager on an innovative project to reach out to local students to give them an insight into the variety of careers available within the construction industry.

Once a month, Year 10 students from nearby Mildenhall College Academy will chat via Skype to someone working on the RAF Lakenheath construction project, giving them the opportunity during the 30 minute sessions to speak to a range of people about their careers in the construction industry.

Pupils taking part in the chats will also be provided with each speaker’s CV and a workbook, which will support their career discussions in the classroom.

DIO USVF Programme Director, Keith Maddison, explains: “We are happy to support the work that KVF is doing with the local community around RAF Lakenheath.

“It is important to us that the project provides social as well as economic benefits for the local area and that these benefits last even after construction has finished.

“Construction can offer exciting opportunities and I hope that these regular conversations with local students will open their eyes to the many options available to people who choose a career in this industry.”

The first session took place at the end of September with a construction project manager. Further sessions are scheduled throughout the school year and will involve chats with design managers, those working in the energy sector, health and social care and IT.

In addition to strengthening relationships between the project and the local community, it is hoped that the regular chats will encourage young people to consider a career in construction.

Chris Evans, Managing Director of VolkerFitzpatrick’s Civils division is keen to stress the value of people and the importance of encouraging young people to consider choosing a career in the construction industry. He says: “Our people are the driving force behind each and every one of our projects and it is essential that we continue to attract new people into the industry.

“Initiatives like this are a fantastic way of engaging with the next generation of professionals and sharing the diverse range of opportunities available to them within construction.”

In addition to this innovative programme, DIO encourages and supports all of its contractors to develop apprenticeship programmes as part of their work.

It offers a range of apprenticeships on offer to support existing and new staff who wish to develop new skills or upskill through gaining new knowledge and experience.

The project at RAF Lakenheath has an ambition to employ 16 apprentices on site before the end of the programme. As of August, eight have been recruited through VolkerFitzpatrick and Kier.

Hayden Scarth, one of the apprentices currently working at RAF Lakenheath, spoke about his experiences on site. He said: “It’s challenging, I am learning something new every day and getting to apply what I’ve learned.

“I love the fast pace of the work and that I get to be out and about on site. I have already learned the importance of getting out and seeing what is happening. It’s great to have the experience of working on such large and complex projects with big budgets.

“I would definitely recommend an apprenticeship. It is a quicker route to qualification, you get real life experience and you earn money while you are learning.”

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New keynote speaker announced for DPRTE 2020

A new keynote speaker has been announced for Defence Procurement, Research, Technology & Exportability (DPRTE) 2020, which will take place at Farnborough International Exhibition Centre on 1st April.

Andrew Forzani, Chief Commercial Officer of the Ministry of Defence will join Minister for Defence Procurement, Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP to deliver keynote speeches at DPRTE – the event that unites the defence procurement supply chain.

More exciting names are to be confirmed soon.

DPRTE is the UK’s premier event for procurement and supply chain in the defence and security sectors. The annual event, which is now in its seventh year, brings together government departments and agencies, trade associations and businesses of all sizes whose products and services could be relevant to the whole spectrum of the defence and security sectors.

The Keynote Arena will host a range of the leading and most influential speakers from across the defence procurement and supply chain marketplace.

Attendees will have an invaluable opportunity to hear directly from those personnel who are actively engaged in both setting and delivering the direction of the UK’s defence procurement and supply chain strategy.

Do not miss out on this unique opportunity to hear from a range of the most important speakers within defence procurement today.

Sponsorship and exhibition opportunities are now available. For further details, please email or call 0845 270 7066.


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Ministry of Defence to deploy chatbots for soldiers

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is exploring the use of Chatbots as digital assistants, utilising artificial intelligence to help tactical military users to rapidly access information in the field.

Chatbots will enable soldiers to have conversations with a text chat interface system to find and discover the data they need to perform their mission.
British geospatial and data company Envitia was awarded the task of building the high-level Chatbot solution, using AI to answer questions and provide relevant information to the user, both online and offline.

Earlier this year, Dstl ran a competition calling for innovative companies to build a Chatbot demonstrator and evaluate its performance and military utility.

Over the coming months, Envitia will develop the solution using an agile methodology to create a programme that can demonstrate how access to information can be improved for the military, through optimising the Chatbot digital assistant.

Nabil Lodey, Envitia CEO, said: “Envitia is delighted to be working on this next generation set of communication tools for tactical military teams in the MOD. It’s no longer enough to just access information. The vast amounts of data and information could easily swamp a decision maker so our Chatbot solution will filter out irrelevant material, and then provide the vital information that is needed for mission success. We look forward to taking this programme forward so that it can benefit the UK military.”

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Nanotechnology and scaled down equipment in the military

Defence Online’s Ciara Houghton examines how advances in technology are leading to government’s exploring the military use of nanotechnology.

Advancing technology means that important components needed to power products can be made smaller. This includes batteries, aerials, and data storage chips. The first every hard disk drive, invented in 1956, was the IBM Model 350 Disk File which was the size of a cupboard and could hold about 5mb of data. Toshiba recently released a 16 terabyte hard drive around the size of a coaster. Powerful cameras and sound recorders can also be realised on a very small scale enabling surveillance technology that is extremely difficult to spot and harder to destroy.

Nanotechnology holds huge promise for medicine, with scientists researching how tiny robots can swim through the human bloodstream to ensure drugs are being delivered and even how they could combat cancer. As well as creating smaller devices, nanotechnology can improve other aspects of military technology such as manufacturing, body armour, health monitoring, and even detecting chemical weapons.

Governments across the world are exploring nanotechnology in surveillance for military purposes. Near-invisible tiny cameras can be easily hidden in drones and other equipment to provide reconnaissance data and intelligence. This has proved a point of contention for ethicists and even conspiracy theorists, but some of the more outlandish ideas are not far from the truth.

China has developed surveillance drones that look like birds to collect data from across the country. Russia and the United States have taken similar measures, disguising drones as birds and even insects. Many of these ideas are still in the early stages, but the scaling down of technology makes it possible. Currently, the world’s smallest camera is the size of a grain of salt and is used for medical purposes.

Concerns over surveillance nanobots range from worries over privacy to potential health concerns and environmental hazards. Insect-sized robotics have numerous applications, including maintaining the environment, and nanobots can be programmed to work in ‘swarms’. A large number of robots can be controlled to act as one, making them even more difficult to combat.

There is an environmental concern too, nanobots, like microplastics, would be difficult to clean up after use and could even be ingested by people and animals. It is unknown what kind of impact they could have on the environment and people’s health. They could contain chemicals like mercury and if left this could leak into the environment. They could even contribute to litter in the ocean and space, with unknown effects. Insect-sized bots that could enter people’s homes unnoticed and be equipped with technology such as face recognition is a scary concept.

The US military has been experimenting with nano drones for reconnaissance purposes. The Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance System (PRS) from FLIR systems is fitted with a camera and thermal imaging and has a flight endurance of 25 minutes and a range of up to 2km. The standard model weighs 33 grams and is 16.8 cm long. The latest model, the Black Hornet 3 nano-UAV can fly in areas without GPS capabilities, has an improved data link and higher quality image capability. It can fly at speeds of 21km/h and can operate in temperatures between -10°c and 43°c.

The drones are controlled on the ground with remote control systems weighing less than 1kg and AES 256 encrypted communications. The drone has proved highly popular with armed forces organisations across the world. Over 30 countries have expressed interest in the drone. FLIR systems won a $39.6million contract with the US military for the Soldier Borne Sensor Program earlier this year to start its ambition to provide all 7,000 squads in the army with a Black Hornet PRS.

The British MOD awarded the company a $1.8million contract for the drones and the French Military awarded an £89million contract to FLIR. Around 8,000 of the drones are currently deployed in 30 countries. Multiple tiny drones can be deployed as swarms which confuse enemy radar. The US DOD is aiming to develop its own nano drones to bypass enemy sensors. Researchers at Purdue University developed tiny drones designed to look like hummingbirds. The drone mimics the flight of the bird and was trained through an algorithm based on research into birds.

Military organisations are exploring how nanotechnology can be used to create new fabrics to enhance soldier’s performance, keep them safe, and even regulate temperature. In Canada, experts from the University of Alberta are exploring how nanotechnology can help create new textiles. Through a $1.5million government grant, scientists are working on ‘Comfort-Optimized Materials for Operation Resilience, Thermal-transport, and Survivability’ (COMFORTS).

The project is organised into eight smaller objectives, tackling issues faced by the Canadian armed forces. Patricia Dolez, a textile scientist, is mostly focussed on creating a material that uses nanofibres to protect against chemical and biological threats that also is light and doesn’t make the wearer too hot. This will utilise electrospinning, which weaves together nanofibres to create effective filters.

Temperature control is another focus, engineering professor Kevin Golovin from the University of British Columbia Okanagan is researching a flexible fabric that detects comfort levels with built-in sensors and can adapt to the environment, protecting the wearer from extreme temperatures. The project also includes a layer designed to keep the wearer dry using Dolez’s previous research into hydrophobic nanofibre fabrics. This will be included as an additional layer. One layer is being tested to protect against flames and extreme heat at a special facility at the University. The team is also researching lightweight and comfortable bulletproof materials that can keep soldiers safe without weighing them down.

One potential innovation that could prove invaluable to the military is nanogenerators. Nanogenerators look like tiny, flexible computer chips and utilise nanowires measuring 200-300 nanometers thick to generate triboelectric power. When contact is applied to the generator the nanowires create static electricity through close contact and send it to one of the electrodes built into the circuit.

This pressure can come from movement, manipulation, or even involuntary bodily processes like your pulse or the function of organs. Naturally, they’re a huge point of interest for medicine, potentially providing a reliable low-maintenance source of power for medical devices like pacemakers that could be implanted with little impact on the patient.

They could also be incorporated into clothing and used to power devices like phones. This kind of technology could be extremely useful to the military, a lightweight, environmentally friendly generator that can be worn on the skin or placed within a soldier’s uniform fabric. One potential use of nanotechnology being actively researched is how it can be used to track and secure military equipment during delivery. Theft of defence equipment in transit is a huge problem in the military supply chain, particularly in the US.

The DOD has used Radio Frequency Identification to track and identify packages but is looking to scale down the processes. Nanotech can help provide unique ‘fingerprints’ to secure the identity of merchandise and improve security through nanodevices such as encrypted chips in labels. The information can be stored through IoT to prevent fraud.

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New communications system to ensure interoperability between UK and Netherlands forces

An updated model of a communications system will help secure collaboration between UK and Netherlands forces, according to General Dynamics.

The updated communications system NIMCIS (New Integrated Marines Communications and Information System) will further collaboration between the UK and Netherlands armed forces. The two military organisations will work together to improve hardware, user experience, and training.

The new NIMCIS 4.0 programme will provide the Netherlands with upgraded technology aligning with that available to the UK. The new system creates a low-risk form of tactical communication and information transfer.

Major of Marines Menno van der Schaff said: “It is key for us to continuously improve and develop in order to stay in line with the latest technologies and that is what NIMCIS 4.0 will enable. We’ll be able to act faster and fully integrate with our colleagues in the United Kingdom, whilst evolving our current system and providing an easy-to-use system.”

General Dynamics UK has provided the NIMCIS system to the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps for the past 14 years. The system provides a secure voice and data communications infrastructure capable of supporting a range of network-enabled command, control, communications, computing and intelligence systems.

The new updates aim to create a more user-friendly experience with the soldier at the centre, aiming to improve the security of communication and strengthening collaboration between the UK and the Netherlands. The programme provides the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps with the Bowman 5.6 system, which General Dynamics is currently rolling out for the UK armed forces along with improvements such as additional data terminals and Battle Management System updates.

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Advantage through industry: The Army releases its industrial engagement framework

The ever-changing political, social, economic and technological landscapes across the globe means that the Army must be agile enough to adapt to these challenges to gain operational and strategic advantage over adversaries.

The Army is required to perform a wide variety of roles at home and overseas, meaning that adaptability in structures and capabilities is crucial.

To help achieve this, the British Army has launched the Army Industrial Engagement Framework (AIEF), which for the first time defines how the army can develop a more cohesive and effective relationship with industry throughout the procurement and development process.

The framework sets out the principles of the army’s relationship with industry, focussing on continual, closer engagement to achieve battle-winning equipment programmes with the best value for money.

In the Army’s vision statement it says that the Army’s relationship with industry will ‘deliver capability that is adaptable, agile, resilient and affordable, giving UK Land Forces advantage over its adversaries’.

To meet these challenges, the Army say they must work closely with its allies and partners and but most importantly, with industry.

The report highlights the key role that science, technology and innovation will play in driving the Army’s search for new methods to military requirements and unlock game-changing advances.

The Army, like most the MOD as a whole, is also keen to seek out new ways of engaging with industry, including SMEs and non-traditional defence suppliers.

Exportability will also be a key factor throughout the development process in order to boost the opportunity for wider sales, thus providing a valuable contribution to UK prosperity.

Being the largest employer within defence, the Army will endeavour to make sure that human capability remains central to its decision-making processes. The AIEF states that the Army will ‘ensure outputs are delivered efficiently by the right mix of capable and motivated people’.

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, explained: “The Army and industry have recognised a need to think differently about how their relationship should work in the future. Industry wants clarity form the Army on its future requirements so it can be better served, and the Army wants to gain advantages over its adversaries through the technology, innovation and efficiencies that industry can offer.”

The AIEF signposts for industry the direction the Army is taking with relation to capability objectives and the challenges it seeks industry’s support to overcome. It will guide industry as to where they might wish to focus research to benefit the Army in the future.

It highlights four design principles – Agility; Adaptability, Resilience; International by Design; and affordability – that help deliver a number of significant advantages such as:

Capable/adaptable people; increased tempo; resilience; improved survivability and redundancy; increased speed of projection; improved influence; enhanced operational and strategic mobility; reduced logistic need; increased operational security; increased capability in electronic attack; greater soldier lethality; deliver mass effect; improved electronic defence; improved situational awareness; improved platform reliability; free manpower from support roles; and enhanced ability to upgrade the force rapidly with technology.

To help achieve these, the Army has developed a number of higher-level requirements. These are intended to provide focus for capability development whilst still providing the opportunity for innovation.

Brigadier Kev Copsey, the British Army’s Head of Future Force Development said: “In this age of constant competition, fast moving threats and technological advances, our relationship with industry must be equally dynamic.

“As a buyer organisation, the Army has concluded that the closer the army and industry are in our aspirations, the more likely we will be able to successfully meet the operational and strategic challenges we both face.”

The objectives are understandably wide-ranging but include on the improving the performance and wellbeing of solders; degrading the enemy’s will, cohesion and cognition; exploiting robotic and autonomous systems; increasing standardisation; and improving training capabilities.

Through the AIEF, the Army has committed to a new approach to industry that includes increased speed, agility, greater innovation and a clear strategic alignment from the outset.

A series of open access industrial engagement events will be held with the intention to create an on-going and meaningful dialogue with industry.

There will also be an opportunity for industry to voice its feedback and series of lower level events, hands-on troop trials and demonstration days held to provide opportunities for further engagement. The Army has also committed to publishing its key policies and will provide early exposure of its capability portfolio.

The Army will follow the Routes to Market (Optimising Acquisition) initiative, which utilises integrated demand forecasting with early visibility of requirements to create more time to assess and plan resourcing and aggregate spend, ensuring that the most appropriate commercial approach is taken.

Defence Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said: “The army’s new approach to industry signifies its world-class reputation for innovation and engagement. This framework will benefit industrial partners as they support defence in the delivery of future army capabilities.”

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Construction work progressing at RAF Lakenheath

Construction work at RAF Lakenheath to accommodate new F-35 jets is on track as two key buildings are taking shape.

New facilities at RAF Lakenheath are taking shape as construction work progresses ahead of the arrival of F-35 jets. The first of the aircraft are due to arrive in 2021 and new infrastructure will help train future F-35 pilots.

The new facilities will include an Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), flight simulator facility, and additional accommodation for the estimated 1,200 new personnel expected to arrive along with the F-35s. The AMU will also include amenities, lecture theatres, classroom areas, and administration facilities.

Keith Maddison, DIO USVF Programme Director, said: “We are pleased with the progress achieved at the base since the groundbreaking event. The site is changing and improving every day and it is exciting to see key buildings like the flight simulator and the maintenance unit beginning to take shape. We are proud to be playing a central role in preparing RAF Lakenheath to become the first permanent international site for US Air Force F-35s in Europe.”

USAF 48th Operations Group Commander Colonel Jason Camilletti said: “We appreciate the collaboration with our teammates to deliver these world-class facilities. By creating synergy in the training and development of our aircrew, maintainers, and support personnel, this shared space will ensure we’ll continue to be ready to secure the sovereign skies above.”

The £160million contract for the construction was won by Kier VolkerFitzpatrick and ground was broken on the project earlier in the year. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) is working with Forest Heath District Council to create training and employment opportunities in the local area.

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Britain’s second carrier HMS Prince of Wales sets sail for sea trials

Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, has sailed from Rosyth Dockyard for the first time.

Eight years after her first steel was cut, the 65,000 tonne warship, HMS Prince of Wales, will begin her initial sea trials.

The carrier will conduct extensive sea trials off the coast of North East Scotland upon departing Rosyth before arriving at her home port of Portsmouth later this year.

Upon her entry to Portsmouth, she will be officially commissioned into the Royal Navy by her Lady Sponsor, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, and sit alongside her sister ship for the first time.

The Prince of Wales is only the second ship in the world after HMS Queen Elizabeth to be built from the hull upwards, specifically to operate the fifth generation F35B Lightning II Joint Strike fighter jet.

Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Prince of Wales’ departure from Rosyth is a landmark moment for the carrier programme. As the ship takes the next step to becoming fully operational, she carries with her the story of Britain’s maritime might.

“This tremendous achievement is a testament to the talent of British industry and I look forward to the moment we can welcome her into the Royal Navy family.”

The ship has emerged from build two years after her sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is currently transiting the Atlantic, including visiting Canada. The deployment, known as WESTLANT19 is an Operational Trial to be conducted with UK F-35Bs off the East Coast of the US.

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At war with obsolescence

Managing aging equipment is a serious issue in manufacturing for military applications, characterised by long lead times, complex requirements for regulatory compliance, and equipment that is expected to last for decades. Here Jonathan Wilkins, director at automation parts supplier EU Automation, illustrates the challenges of obsolescence in the defence sector and shares his expert advice on how to face them.

According to the definition from the International Institute of Obsolescence Management (IIOM), obsolescence is the unavailability of parts or services that were previously available. Obsolescence occurs when the components of a system are no longer produced by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), or when the latter is no longer in business. This means that when original components break or experience a malfunction, replacements can be hard or even impossible to find.

In the defence sector, the correct management of ageing equipment is particularly tricky. Defence systems such as military aircraft, navy solutions and missile defence systems are expected to last for several decades, but their components often have an operational life of no more than five years. This incongruence brings many disadvantages, such as the necessity to stock on spare parts to keep the system operational for as long as possible.

To complicate things, defence is a highly regulated field, and using components that have not been previously approved can be problematic. If a component breaks and an exact replacement is not available, installing a different part means that that entire system might have to be re-tested and re-certified.

The cost of obsolescence

Obsolescence is a costly business. Though its exact cost varies on a case-by-case and country-by-country basis, evidence shows that its impact on the defence sector is very costly and that solutions to mitigate its negative consequences are urgently needed. For example, the US Navy estimates that obsolescence-related issues cost them up to 750 million dollars annually, a huge amount that inevitably impacts American taxpayers.

Most worryingly, obsolescence can occur at any time during a component’s life cycle, meaning that components can become obsolete before defence systems are even up and running. Electronic components are among the most critical ones, since their life expectancy is relatively short when compared to other components.

According to Prof. Peter Sandborn, director of the mechanical engineering department of the University of Maryland, it is not unusual that 70 to 80 per cent of electronic components in a military system become obsolete before that system enters service. This is due to the long lead time that characterise the defence sector, where every phase of a component’s design, production and installation is strictly regulated.

In the long run, these expenses add up and impact the final cost of a defence system. For example, according to Profs. John Erkoyuncu and Roy Rajkumar from Cranfield University, the total through-life obsolescence cost for the Nimrod MRA4, a maritime reconnaissance aircraft, was around 780 million pounds. This aircraft was never even operated, and yet it cost a fortune in terms of obsolescence management.

National authorities are on the lookout for innovative solutions to reduce obsolescence-related costs. However, it’s not just a question of budgeting: from a military perspective, the true cost of obsolescence is under-performing equipment and ultimately reduced safety.

The problem with COTS

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products offer designers of military systems access to cost-effective alternatives to bespoke solutions. However, as the name suggests, these parts have not been specifically designed for the military market and might not perform adequately in this context.

To meet a wider range of performance requirements, COTS manufacturers may not have specified these components for operation over wider temperature ranges, or with greater tolerance to high voltage, or with a proven resistance to harsh environments.

The result is that COTS tend to deteriorate easily in military applications. Nowadays, most current commercial and industrial designs are in production for five years or less and the life span of those designs continues to shrink. As a consequence, while the lifecycle of a military system is usually twenty years or more, many of its components will last for no more than five years.

Despite that, the use of COTS in defence systems has been widely promoted by national authorities to reduce production time and costs. Finding sustainable solutions to COTS obsolescence is therefore paramount.

Additive manufacturing: a viable alternative?

Recent advancements in additive manufacturing (AM) represent a promising alternative to managing some aspects of obsolescence. Several national authorities, including the US and the Swiss Governments, have already established research programmes that explore the possibilities of this innovative production technique.

AM involves producing components using 3D-printing techniques. The components’ material is initially in the form of metal powder, which is melted with a laser layer after layer. Using this method, there is the potential to 3D-print any part, in any shape, using an a wide range of materials.

Materials that are extremely resistant, and therefore perfect for military applications but very hard to handle, can now be printed into the desired shape. For example, Swedish engineering company Sandvik has recently 3D printed an exceptionally durable diamond composite that is ideal for military applications.

Although many predict that AM could potentially solve the problem of sourcing obsolete replacement parts, there are still serious technical and bureaucratical questions that this technology cannot answer.

Newly fabricated parts are hard to implement in defence, and sorting out regulations will take years. For example, it is unclear to which regulations these components should comply to make sure that they are safe to use in the military sector. Another potential problem is that at the moment there are no laws in place to determine the intellectual property rights of additively manufactured components.

From a strictly technical point of view, the main shortcoming of AM is that while this technology could help manage obsolescence for mechanical components, it is not clear if it would help with other types of obsolescence, for example for electronics.

Solutions that only tackle one aspect of obsolescence can only partially help. Electronic components, mechanical components, materials, software, skills, can all be subject to obsolescence. For this reason, solutions that deal with all aspects of obsolescence are always preferable.

A holistic approach to obsolescence management

The life cycle of a defence system is divided into six phases: concept, assessment, demonstration, manufacture, in-service and disposal—the so-called CADMID cycle. Obsolescence can occur during any of those phases for any component of the system. Therefore, a holistic approach to obsolescence management has to be implemented already in the early stages of any military project.

There are two approaches to holistic obsolescence management: reactive and proactive. The reactive approach consists in taking measures to substitute or repair parts once a breakdown happens, while the proactive approach is based on constant monitoring and planning to prevent breakdowns from occurring in the first place.

A proactive approach is of course preferable in that it allows manufacturers for the military sector to plan in advance, sourcing spare parts where it is most convenient and minimising downtime due to unexpected breakage.

There are three main areas in which a proactive approach to obsolescence management can be beneficial: design, supply chain and maintenance planning. In the design phase, it’s best to privilege open system architectures and modularity, so that parts can be substituted more easily.

In the supply chain, it’s important to have partnering agreements with a trustworthy supplier that can deliver parts quickly and efficiently, minimising downtime. Finally, it’s important to have an obsolescence management plan in place. To help with that, hiring an obsolescence manager can be a good solution. These professionals can help track the life phases of military equipment, monitor the condition of machinery and tools, and plan necessary maintenance before breakage even happens.

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