To respond to the growing demand for COVID-19-related supplies, the Air Force is piloting an initiative called the Rapid Agile Manufacturing Platform to leverage the full capacity of the U.S. manufacturing base.
This initiative, which kicked off on April 10 as part of the Department of the Air Force Acquisition COVID-19 Task Force, is designed as a framework to keep the Air Force supply system independent of the civilian medical supply market.
“This pandemic has placed a massive strain on the medical industry due to a significant increase in demand for supplies like masks and ventilators,” said Maj. Chris Wood, DAF ACT AFRAMP lead. “Many U.S.-based suppliers are doing what they can to increase their capacity, but there’s more unmet demand out there. We decided to turn to nontraditional suppliers – like car manufacturers and 3D-printing factories – to explore how they can contribute in making different products for the Department of the Air Force.”
With a background in logistics innovation, Wood has spent years exploring disruptive supply chain concepts and understands the types of challenges the U.S. faces in the midst of global crises like the pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases were increasing in the U.S., Wood connected with Col. James Gherdovich through the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resources Strategy to explore how they could help combat the challenge.
They understood two primary problems with the current production model: relying on “single-purpose” investments that go to one company, one factory line and one supply chain would limit the flexibility of getting supplies where they were needed most; a significant percentage of manufacturing is still occurring overseas, which decreases the nation’s positive control over the supply chain.
“In times of crisis, relying on one company or those outside of our direct reach drastically reduces the U.S.’s ability to respond in an agile manner,” Gherdovich said. “If we were to shift the model slightly and incentivize production from businesses outside the traditional supply chain, we’ll be far more resilient and equipped to take on national and global challenges like COVID-19.”
Retooling the manufacturing capabilities of U.S.-based suppliers that don’t already make medical supplies and increasing their rate of production would require a significant uptick in their spending on things like equipment, property, technology and employees.
The primary ingredient to ensuring this can happen, Wood said, is either an initial surge in investment or a consistent and reliable investment into the future.
This is where Wood envisioned a framework like AFRAMP could help.
The envisioned process goes like this: Non-traditional companies apply through a central portal where they are evaluated using a suite of digital tools and validated against needs that are collected directly from end-users. Then, an initial sample purchase takes place where the company sends a small batch of equipment to a unit for evaluation before a larger purchase takes place.
After sharing the concept with Maj. Gen. Cameron G. Holt, deputy assistant secretary for contracting, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and DAF ACT lead, Wood was given the green light to carry out a trial run under the task force’s rapid contracting for small businesses acquisition line of effort.
In the Air Force pilot, a RAPIDx contracting team leveraged an innovative procedure called a Commercial Solutions Opening with an AFRAMP Area of Interest for companies to apply through. Evaluation teams used a tool called ValidEval to screen submissions, and needs for supplies were collected primarily from about 50 volunteers from AFWERX’s Spark Cell network.
For the first iteration, the initiative focused on evaluating face shields and reusable respirators to test the flexibility of AFRAMP to handle a variety of product types, product scaling, funding sources and strategies, and program management approaches. The next stage aims to tack on three more product types: sanitizer, door modifications and cloth face coverings.
Using an initial investment from Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, the RAMP team has been able to deliver approximately 13,000 items to service members in career fields like security forces, aircraft maintenance and training at locations like Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, and Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.
For the second stage with larger purchases, the RAMP team is looking to deliver 50,000 more items and 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer.
“Bringing the 11th Security Forces Group into this pilot program reinforces readiness and preparedness to respond and execute our no-fail mission at Joint Base Andrews,” said Lt. Col. David Herndon, 11th Security Support Squadron commander. “Experimenting and exploring faster ways to deliver capabilities to our first responders has been exciting for our supply professionals. We’ve gone from sewing masks with mission partners, to fielding equipment and iterating with the program office and commercial vendors to meet the needs of defenders standing post at America’s Airfield and operating around the globe.”
By leveraging this framework, the Air Force is focusing on bolstering the health of the U.S. manufacturing industry, meeting clearly defined operational needs and creating a centrally managed platform that allows flexibility between speed, cost, capacity and the ability to pivot to multiple product types.
“As we explore the potential of RAMP, we’re aiming to foster and sustain relationships with non-traditional companies beyond COVID-19,” Wood said. “The more the Department of Defense simplifies and incentivizes pathways for these businesses to contribute in times of crisis, the quicker the entire country will be able to pivot when the time comes.”
The initiative has heavily relied on the Air Force’s network of innovators that has been built over the past couple years for the volunteers, contracting resources and contacts necessary to make this successful.
“Being involved in this innovation ecosystem for a few months now, I’m noticing the immense benefit to having access to this wealth of creative problem solvers,” said Staff Sgt. Arron Riffle, RAPIDx contracting officer. “Being able to rapidly respond to COVID-19 and provide support in the form of contracting methods we haven’t heavily used before has been an incredible experience.”
Following evaluation of the Air Force pilot, the RAMP team is exploring ways to scale the framework to the rest of the Department of Defense to ensure defense and national security needs are met without stressing the traditional medical supply chain and while bolstering the U.S. private sector.
“We realize the unique role we can play as innovation enablers in times of crisis or when it’s time to shoot for the moon,” Wood said. “The more we focus on serving in that capacity, the better we can serve the American people.”
For organizations looking to implement a similar model in COVID-19 or other response efforts, contact Maj. Chris Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.