Mobile Labs Build On-the-Spot Combat Solutions

REF Expeditionary Lab

For the first time, the Army is deploying special scientists and self-contained, mobile laboratories to the warzone capable of designing and producing problem-solving inventions for soldiers operating in remote outposts in Afghanistan.

The service’s Rapid Equipping Force, known as the REF, took a standard 20-foot shipping container and packed it with high-tech, prototyping machines, lab gear and manufacturing tools to create the Expeditionary Lab -- Mobile.

Soldiers no longer have to wait to bring ideas back to scientists and engineers back in the states. The REF has brought the experts to the soldiers in combat.

These mobile labs represent the REF’s future as its director, Col. Peter Newell, wanted to figure out a way to help the Army’s quickest, most agile acquisition arm deliver equipment to soldiers even faster. Stood up in 2002, the REF has delivered life-saving pieces of combat gear such as the Raven drone and the Pilar acoustic sensor system that detects incoming bullets.

REF leaders deployed the first mobile labs to Afghanistan’s RC-South in July. Each one is designed to bring innovation to the source of the problem, cutting months off of the traditional rapid-fielding process.

“The soldiers out there, they know how to do stuff; they know how to fix stuff and they know what they need to be able to do, but what they don’t have is the technical expertise in many cases to do it themselves,” said Col. Pete Newell, commander of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force at Fort Belvoir, Va.

In the past, soldiers have relied heavily on Operational Needs Statements to describe a problem to Army developers who then create or purchase a piece of gear to serve as a solution.

Sometimes, the original idea can get lost in the process, Newell said.

“It’s really difficult to connect the guy who is building the product to the kid who really needed it to begin with, so what we went after is to connect the scientist to the soldier,” he said. “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”

The plan is to deploy a second expeditionary lab to RC East this fall. A third will remain stateside for contingencies such as natural-disaster support.

The labs cost about $2.8 million each and include state-of-the-art equipment such as a Rapid Prototyping 3D Printer, a machine that can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. There’s also a similar device known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system for producing parts and components from steel and aluminum.

“This is cutting-edge technology that allows you to actually print parts and pieces to things,” Newell said. “They are not really inventing something new; they are modifying something that exists already so they can do something else.”

The Army has had this equipment for some time in stationary labs in Kandahar and Bagram Air Base. Engineers used it recently to improve the battery performance of the Minehound, a hand-held ground-penetrating radar device used to detect buried improvised explosive devices, Newell said.

The extreme heat in Afghanistan quickly eroded the eight-hour battery life of these devices down to 45 minutes, a problem that loaded down dismounted soldiers with the weight of extra batteries for multi-day missions.

Engineers created a special adaptor and power cable for a standard military-issue BA5590 battery, which now powers the Minehound for up to nine hours. The fix also allowed soldiers to take the battery off the device and wear it on their body for better weight distribution and reduced arm fatigue, Newell said.

The first prototypes were created in May and the production quality adaptors were on the ground by late July -- not fast enough said Newell.

“I had lab guys flying around the battlefield and talking to soldiers and it could be weeks before they get back around to them again, so it is really hard to be … at the  point of the spear and helping the guy while he has a problem rather than showing up too late,” Newell said. “So we decided it was time to get our labs back out further forward on the battlefield.”

In September 2011, the Army awarded a $9.7 million contract to a large engineering company known as Exponent Inc., for three year’s worth of expeditionary lab support.

REF officials then worked with Exponent engineers to develop and build these custom labs. They are equipped with their own generator and heating and cooling system.

In addition to the high-tech prototyping equipment, the labs include portable equipment carts filled with tools such as plasma cutters for precision metal cutting, welders, magnetic mounted drill-presses, electric hacksaws, routers, circular saws and jig saws.

The labs also include satellite communications equipment for conducting video teleconferences with REF officials and engineers in the states.

“The scientists working in that lab can have the sergeant sitting next to them working on a problem connected in VTC real-time with us here, the main lab someplace else, and a commercial vendor someplace else,” Newell said.

But the equipment wouldn’t be worth much without the specialized engineers that deploy with the labs, he said. Typically, each lab is manned by two engineers, one senior and one that’s a bit greener with fresh ideas. They are replaced about every four months to keep a new perspective in the lab, Newell said.

But the two lab engineers are far from alone.

“When the Exponent guy in my lab has a problem, and doesn’t have the expertise to come up with a solution, he types that up and opens up a VTC that … opens him up with a portal with 6,000 other engineers in Exponent,” who help solve the problem, Newell said.

Once in theater, these expeditionary labs can be transported by truck or airlifted by helicopter to wherever they are needed, Newell said.

These labs don’t just fill a battlefield role, they can also be deployed to solve problems on the ground during natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. Newell says the REF plans to use these labs well past 2014, when soldiers leave Afghanistan.

“This is really the platform for the future of the Rapid Equipping Force,” Newell said.

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