Science & Technology Corner

Prototyping: A Critical Enabler to Increasing the Pace of Innovation

This article was taken from a longer piece featured in AT&L Magazine, written by CAPT Richard Hencke, the Military Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, EC&P.

Today’s tightening fiscal constraints and the globalization of a diverse and expanding array of threats (that include long range missiles, sophisticated air defense systems, and chemical weapons) have combined to form a one-two punch that has left the DOD’s acquisition system staggering. The acquisition system can no longer afford the variety of systems necessary to sustain a technical advantage across such a large threat landscape. Even without resource constraints, it is unclear if current acquisition processes can adapt products quickly enough to address rapidly evolving threats.
To sustain the technical advantage against our adversaries, we must again create an environment where creative thinking is allowed to flourish, where a risk-accepting culture encourages experimentation of new and unconventional ideas. In this environment, higher risk and more innovative prototypes are avidly pursued and honestly assessed, unlocking new insights that can lead to potentially game-changing solutions.

Prototyping as a Risk Reduction Tool
Prototyping has long been recognized as an effective tool for the reduction of technical risk throughout the development of complex weapons systems. Recent studies suggest prototyping can increase the pace and reduce the cost of developing complex systems, enable organizational cultural change, aid acquisition reform, advance the technical skills of the industrial base, and even deter rival nation states from pursuing paths that threaten our national interests.
And with new rapid prototyping techniques compressing development cycle times, iterating to better solutions has never been faster. Rapid prototyping technologies and techniques are well-positioned to support the need for reduced development cycle times. A well-outfitted rapid prototyping lab may have computer aided design and manufacturing software linked to Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines that quickly mill, cut, and build-up material components combined with field programmable Gate Array integrated circuits. These tools allow prototyping labs to quickly build-up and rapidly modify complicated new prototypes.

A Re-Focus: From Rapid Fielding to Emerging Capability & Prototyping
Recognizing the benefits of prototyping, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s (ASD(R&E))’s Emerging Capability & Prototyping (EC&P) office –formerly known as Rapid Fielding--expanded its focus to include the development of less technically mature prototypes that can quickly explore new ideas. The former Rapid Fielding office’s existing capability development methodology also supports their new role. Rapid Fielding’s “repurpose, modify, and combine” methodology is an early progenitor of the modular, plug-and-play architectures we will need in our future weapon systems.
As persistent threats evolve and new threats appear, future weapons systems must have greater flexibility and agility – flexible enough to cover a wide range of missions and agile enough to quickly adapt to fast evolving threats. ASD(R&E’s) leadership  is focusing prototyping activities towards those critical enablers to innovation – open architectures, modular and reusable designs, and the early application of a rapid, iterative development cycle methodology – can help the DOD build the portfolio of agile and flexible systems it needs to outpace any adversary.

For more about the Emerging Capability & Prototyping Office.

Updated 6/14
Dept of Defense US Air Force OASAALT RDECOM ONR NRL US Air Force Joint Chiefs of Staff Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Force Health Protection & Readiness Defense Threat Reduction Agency Missile Defense Agency Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization Chemical & Biological Defense Program