Imagine for a moment you’re an engineer, and the top brass where you work call to say, “We’ve got a problem in the field — and you’ve got 72 hours to solve it.” And by “solve it” they don’t just mean think of an answer, they mean design it, build a prototype, test it, get user feedback, work out the bugs, retest it, and get it into production so it’s on its way to the customer — all in 72 hours.
Wait, it gets better. Imagine now the company you work for is the U.S. military, where the top brass really are top brass, there’s enough red tape to choke a Clydesdale, and your customers
are soldiers in the field whose lives actually depend on your solution. Feeling a tad nervous now? Fingers a little sweaty around your calculator? Could that clock on the wall be ticking any louder?
Welcome to the world of TARDEC or, to us non-acronym types, the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, where this type of challenge is a regular occurrence — and is quietly referred to in the jargon of the crew as a “Code 72.”
While we’re all too familiar with stories of military hardware that takes years if not decades to produce and ends up billions of dollars over budget, the guys at TARDEC rarely enjoy such indulgence. Based in Warren, Mich., TARDEC came about in the late 1950s to marry the design and manufacturing expertise of Detroit’s car companies with the military’s expanding need for ground vehicles, running the gamut from tanks and trucks to the armored troop transports, Humvees, and remote-controlled robots in use today. And given that our military has the largest fleet of ground vehicles on the planet — around 250,000, give or take a few — that covers a lot of territory in every sense of the word.
So TARDEC routinely has its hands full, its budgets tight, and its projects sharply focused. Especially when it comes to a Code 72. Case in point: the Gunner Restraint System.
Back in September of 2008, then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren realized that in Iraq and Afghanistan more than five soldiers a month were getting killed or seriously injured by being thrown from open gun turrets when their heavily armored, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) rolled over on accident or in combat. And this was simply an unacceptable loss.
So the call went down to TARDEC’s executive director for product development, Thom Mathes, to find a solution and get it out to the field of battle within three days. 72 hours. No extensions, no excuses, no room for failure. Everyone knew this was a Code 72 — or as Thom likes to say, with his Cheshire Cat smile, “They offered us another opportunity to excel.”
Having spent 10 years at Chrysler before moving to TARDEC almost 30 years ago, Thom tries to minimize the bureaucracy into what he calls their Monster Garage approach: forget titles or departments — just put your heads against the problem and find a way to get it done.
In the case of finding a way to secure those gunners, Thom turned to three of his top engineers: team leader John Schmitz, whose father worked at TARDEC before him and who is never without his Swiss Army knife because he thinks MacGyver rocks; Mike Manceor, a mechanical engineer who coincidentally started working at TARDEC the same day as John and has stayed there for more than 23 years because, to him, nothing beats the rush of creating things for a living; and “Magic” Bob Washburn, an electronics engineer who earned his nickname by frequently being called upon to stroke TARDEC’s high-end but fidgety computer systems into cooperating, as in: “Why won’t this program do what I tell it? Beats me. Call Magic Bob — he’ll figure it out.”
Project start: John, Mike, and Magic Bob drop what they’re doing, tell their wives not to bother waiting up, and huddle in a room with Thom to see what they’re up against. The fleet of MRAPs is made by five different manufacturers and has 12 variant models — and although TARDEC has several physical MRAPs to work with, there are no reference drawings or engineering specs.
Whatever restraint system they devise has to work for all models. What’s more, it has to be simple enough for any soldier to install. There are only so many mechanics in the war zones, and if vehicles have to be pulled out of service for an installation, it’ll create an operational nightmare and most likely never happen.
It also has to be made from parts that already exist in the military stock catalog, because to design and manufacture something from scratch will be way too costly and time-consuming to even think about. And, perhaps most important of all, it has to be both comfortable and convincing enough that the gunners in those MRAPs will actually want to use it. No point in coming up with something your customer won’t buy.
So they break it down into the basic components: a plate to attach the system to the floor of the MRAP, a seatbelt retractor they can attach to the plate, and a harness for the gunner that can attach to the retractor. Mike takes on the plate and heads off to start measuring bolt holes in the MRAPs they have in the shop. Magic Bob starts the hunt for the best retractor, and John starts on the harness. In the meantime, Thom will reach out to the wounded warriors who survived these rollovers, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C., for any wisdom they can offer, and will also talk to crash experts who work at some of the 56 automotive R&D firms within the greater Detroit area. It’s Monster Garage time, people, and the clock is ticking.
It’s been like this at TARDEC since at least October of 2003, when the shop started running seven days a week. It still does, and 80-hour workweeks are not uncommon. When John, Mike, and Magic Bob first came to TARDEC, the designers and prototype makers were like two separate camps — the engineers weren’t allowed to even pick up a wrench. You gave the shop guys your drawing and hoped for the best. Not so anymore. Thom and the others knew a good idea could come from even the most novice machinist, and as deadlines became more urgent and machines more sophisticated, there was no way they could be effective with that barrier. So the shop techs are now part of the team and are consulted by the engineers before anything gets made. Even the electronics-focused Magic Bob can run every machine in the shop, and it’s one of the first places the other guys know to look for him.
Suffice it to say, within the first 24 hours of getting the call, the guys and their six shop techs have a restraint system mounted in an MRAP and ready for testing. For that they turn to a “user jury” of combat vets stationed at the same Detroit Arsenal where TARDEC is based. There’s no substitute for experience, and even the most imaginative designer can’t know what’s going on in gunners’ minds when they’re keyed up and out on a mission.
To accurately assess what happens when an MRAP rolls over, they’ve got just the thing — a massive rollover cage called an “egress assist trainer,” which they had originally designed for testing the Humvee. Despite their wide and squat frames, when Humvees were beefed up with additional armor plates, they were notorious for rolling over. And their doors weigh close to 800lbs — not an easy thing to flip open when the vehicle is lying on its side. (Some MRAP doors weigh upward of a ton — and yeah, TARDEC found a way to fix that problem too, with an electronically assisted door opener.)
To train soldiers how to escape a Humvee in the event of a rollover, TARDEC was tasked with building something that would flip the massive vehicles over, so troops would know exactly how to get out in a hurry when under attack. Initially they were charged with building 70 egress trainers, but these proved so effective and valuable that they eventually made close to 300, almost all of which are now in use overseas.
Adapting the trainer for an MRAP let the team put the restraint-system prototypes through their paces. Needless to say, after eight hours of rapid-rollover testing, there are issues. The seat belt retractor torque is too weak, the harness connection isn’t right, and there’s no way to get one plate to fit in all 12 variations of the vehicles.
Fine. So they’ll make at least two kits with different plates, they’ll go back to work on the harness and retractor, and Thom will start on cutting the red tape with the suppliers, so once the bugs are ironed out and it’s ready to go, the plates, retractors, and harnesses can be fabricated and assembled as quickly and efficiently as possible. Slam back another cup of coffee — we’re not close to being finished and almost half the time is gone.
While all this is happening, the other 200-plus engineers and shop techs at TARDEC are busy with a laundry list of ongoing projects. Like increasing the fuel efficiency of all the ground vehicles. In 2009, 431 million gallons of fuel were consumed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even a 1% improvement in fuel efficiency would cut 6,400 tanker truck convoy missions, which are prime targets for what Mathes calls “precision guided martyrs.” Reduce the need for fuel, reduce the danger — not to mention the considerable savings in cost. So TARDEC has a two-pronged approach to try to double the fuel economy for the Humvee alone: one using a hybrid electric design, the other using high-efficiency diesel.
It’s now hour 63 in the race, and the guys are ready for the next eight-hour round of testing. This time everything works: the plates all fit into the existing bolt holes, and the pumped-up retractor system now withstands an additional 500lbs of force beyond the 2,500lbs initially required. This is maker hacking at its best.
With less than an hour to go, Thom picks up the phone and calls upstairs — “We’re ready.” If the funding is approved, they can send designs and prototype kits to the manufacturers within the hour. Half an hour later, the word comes back: the freshly minted Gunner Restraint System, now called the MRAP GRS, is a “Go!”
Within five days, the GRS kits start arriving in the battle zone. Within three months, more than 8,500 kits are deployed and installed in MRAPs.
Maybe when they have some downtime and aren’t so wiped out, the guys can tell you about some of their other fast-break wonders. Like the BPMTU (Battery Powered Motorized Traversing Unit) or the OWM (Overhead Wire Mitigation) Kits — meanwhile, check those out on the web.
For now, Thom, John, Mike, and Magic Bob merely exchange a satisfied nod and head home to get some rest. Just another day at the office, right? That is, at least until the next Code 72 comes knocking at the door.