Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” As an Iraq War veteran and former Army logistic officer, I believe the modern interpretation is, “An army marches on its supply chain.” This once-underappreciated axiom is now at the forefront in Americans’ minds today, especially for those families in search of a baby formula.
Our nation’s military is facing supply chain issues. The average age of the US Air Force aircraft is 29.1 years old, with eight fleets exceeding an average of 50 years. Each plane has millions of small parts, many of which have not been manufactured in years. As such, the US Department of Defense (DoD) depends upon small manufacturers to keep our equipment operational. This necessity is becoming an insurmountable task.
After concluding my military career, I returned to Oklahoma to open a machine shop to manufacture replacement parts for aging Air Force aircrafts. Given my in-depth knowledge of Defense Department’s supply chain, I was confident that I could both rapidly capture a new opportunity for our business while assisting our military on a pressing need. While I was correct in assessing the need, I was wrong in terms of growing a defense-oriented business.
I quickly learned how challenging it is for small manufacturers to integrate into the defense industrial base (DIB). This led me to conclude that if it is this difficult for me, then it is likely this difficult for small businesses with no military experience or contacts. It was at this moment when the scope of our national supply chain problems came into vivid focus. I also realized that the solution — better visibility and connections to the small businesses that make up the vast majority of manufacturers in the US — was staring the Defense Department in the face, but they could not see them. Why was this the case? I realized that in order to connect the department with this manufacturing sector of small suppliers, new technologies and a new approach were necessary.
An investigation into the department’s defense industrial base yields many factors that have created significant barriers that prevent small and medium-size manufacturers (SMEs) from participation. This includes a lack of a comprehensive view of the nation’s manufacturing base, as well as robust search functionality. To frame the size of this matching challenge, a single unit at Tinker Air Force Base spends over 1 million labor hours annually searching for these SMEs. However, with modern search algorithms and machine learning, the potential exists for defense professionals — for the first time — to find companies that have not historically had a digital presence. This scenario equips the Air Force not to ask, “who makes this part?” but to ask, “who could make this part?” A question we all wish could have been asked throughout the pandemic.
Once a basic framework is established, integrating other forms of emerging technology will allow this ecosystem of small and medium businesses to easily access Defense Department business. This includes expanded functionality such as identifying quality certifications required to work for the department or partnership opportunities that are key for new entrants in the DIB to build up their past performance. Collectively, these technical capabilities create a faster path for the small business owner to more rapidly pursue and win government contracts. That’s just the beginning.
Artificial Intelligence currently being developed in partnership with some of America’s leading research universities can ingest an image of a needed part and identify the companies that could make it if called upon. This system can also search and delineate results based on a wide array of factors such as location, size, specialty or key socio-economic status such as minority-owned or veteran-owned firms.
To its credit, the DoD is making supply chain optimization a major priority and is taking significant steps towards embracing new AI-driven approaches to finally solve these problems. Concurrently, Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation is leading the charge to make sure that our military has the resources and tools it needs to make this quantum leap into more efficient and inclusive “part to process” manufacturing.
The Pandemic created a forcing function as well as a valuable reminder of Napoleon’s adage. While we may have been stuck in the mud in many ways over the past several years, our military and our nation are again on the move – and will be stronger for it.
Michael Morford is a co-founder and visionary of the base architecture for Sustainment Technologies Inc., a Duncan, Oklahoma-based online software platform. He is a founding board member of the Oklahoma Defense Industry Association (ODIA).