FORT STEWART — Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Lopez enlisted in the U.S. Army as a wide-eyed 17-year-old straight out of high school. An infantryman for nearly half his life now, he’s comfortable with a top-down command structure where officers tell him what to do and how to do it.
Even so, Lopez acknowledges the flaws in the “Army way.” Soldiers are issued equipment and told to go use it, “and that’s what you do, even if said equipment doesn’t always work,” Lopez said.
The Marne Innovation Center, a problem-solving hub located on this sprawling U.S. Army installation near Savannah, is empowering 3rd Infantry Division soldiers to address faulty equipment and other issues they encounter from the barracks to the battlefield.
Lopez is assigned to this military makerspace outfitted with powerful design computers, 3-D printers and fabrication equipment. The center has produced dozens of innovations in its short history: a mold-detection device useful in the base’s sleeping quarters; a plastic clip that makes an ammo pouch for belt-loaded machine guns more easily accessible; and a plastic-and-silicone reproduction of a human arm used to train soldiers to apply tourniquets and treat major wounds.
The early returns reflect the success in building what the center’s ranking officer, Capt. Christopher Flournoy, calls “a culture of innovation” at Fort Stewart. And why Army brass from the garrison to the Pentagon see the potential to replicate the Marne Innovation Center model elsewhere.
Looks can be deceiving
Aesthetically, the Marne Innovation Center is the antithesis of a creative epicenter.
The facility is housed in what was once an after-school child care center, where the staff’s first remodeling decision was to tear out the soiled and smelly carpet. Spartan office furniture, a bevy of tool chests, white boards and racks of 3-D printers litter the large, open space.
The center is more tinkerer’s garage than geek’s playground.
The seven soldiers who staff the center offer expertise that ranges from project management to mechanical engineering to electronics wizardry. Yet the staff is a support resource, not a team of fixers. Soldiers come in with problems, and Flournoy and his colleagues offer advice as well as instruction in how to use the computer software and fabrication equipment.
The servicemen take the lead on producing simple improvements and solutions that can quickly and easily be replicated.
“We’re making stop-gap fixes here,” Flournoy said. “If it’s a big enough issue, the Army can still take it to an industry provider. But we want to help soldiers help themselves right now.”
Fresh perspectives to save lives
The center doesn’t rely solely on military expertise. Georgia Tech researchers and students have partnered on a handful of projects, with weekend workshops in Atlanta and 10-week internships at Fort Stewart.
The silicone arm model came out of the first X-Force Fellowship Program internships this summer. Georgia Tech biomedical engineering majors Joseph Ashley and Cole Malenich built a molded plastic arm for use in combat first-aid training. The device solved an issue voiced by medical officers: that soldiers struggled with properly applying tourniquets on the battlefield, specifically with tightening the cuff enough to fully restrict blood flow.
The Georgia Tech students made the arm with a 3-D printer and included a silicone insert where the tourniquet should be applied. They added a water tube and squeeze pump to simulate blood flow so trainees would know when the cuff was tight enough.
Now, many infantry officers at Fort Stewart carry the arms in their vehicles during training exercises and have their soldiers practice tourniquets and wound care during downtime.
“The second we had something, they wanted to use it,” said Ashley, who graduated from Georgia Tech in May. “It was a great feeling knowing that it’s a great product and that it would be used in training that potentially saves lives.”
The training aid was so well received that Ashley and Malenich, a junior at Tech, have launched a startup business to develop other tools for the military and first responders.
The Fort Stewart facility is one of only three Army innovation centers in the country, but that number is likely to grow. Flournoy and other staffers frequently meet with other Army leaders curious about their work and the new take on the Army way.
“We’re eager to share and share best practices,” said Flournoy, who travels twice a month on average to tout the project. “For the Army, this is unique, with commanders on the ground, not the Army as an institution, saying they want to do this.”