Valerie DeVries could clearly see the South Australian desert scrub through the Jeep’s windshield. The tufted grasses, low shrubs, and sparse trees amid pale reddish rocks and sand were vivid.
But DeVries wasn’t actually seated in the Jeep; instead, she was part of an overflow crowd in a dim room 300 miles away in Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, monitoring the experiment’s progress. As the Jeep crawled over dirt roads on the Woomera Test Range, a weapon testing facility run by the Royal Australian Air Force, it transmitted video to DeVries and the other spectators.
Despite a 13.5-hour difference on the clock, and one second of signal delay through space, engineers in Warren were operating the Jeep by satellite to set a baseline for long-distance control of a military vehicle. Besides the video feed from the Jeep itself, three other screens presented diagnostic data and PowerPoint slides so DeVries and her Australian and American colleagues could better interpret the test’s success.
“There were a lot of questions because, you’ve got to remember, this crowd is used to research and experiments,” says DeVries, part of the Global Engineering Team at the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research and Development Engineer Center (TARDEC) in Warren. “It was a very inquisitive environment. There was a lot of back-and-forth.”
The test was part of a multiyear program to refine techniques in the long-distance operation of vehicles for eventual use in bringing water, fuel, and ammunition to soldiers in forward positions, as well as similar activities in the private sector — such as the remote delivery of goods and packages or conducting rescue missions.
The overall program is the result of the Department of Defense’s innovation initiative, which seeks advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems to literally drive these future transportation needs.
Lasting less than an hour, the Jeep experiment affirmed engineers’ work but also left them with some quandaries. Yes, the Jeep could detect rocks, but what about ditches? And military vehicles need to lose their susceptibility to the amnesia that can be created by communications jamming and GPS “spoofing.” It was agreed that development of the guidance system would continue.
Among the observers back in Warren, Paul Rogers, director of TARDEC, was thinking about how to get things moving at the pace of an active conflict. “We’re still looking for vehicles that can avoid obstacles in real time at higher rates of speed,” he says. “The degradation of communications is critical, and to have the strategies to overcome them is critical.”
TARDEC, which has its operations in several large industrial and testing facilities along and near Van Dyke Avenue, north of I-696, is part of a vast defense corridor that includes large contractors like General Dynamics Land Systems, BAE Systems Land and Armaments, and KUKA Robotics.
One of TARDEC’s facilities includes the former tank plant called the Detroit Arsenal, which was the first manufacturing plant in the world built for the mass production of tanks. Designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, the 113-acre complex was constructed by Chrysler and opened in 1941, when the first of 23,000 tanks went to the front lines for use during World War II.
Since the manufacture of tanks ended in 1996, the facility has been repurposed. Today the Arsenal is also home to the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), which manages 65 percent of all Army equipment. In facilities housing state-of-the-art laboratories for engineers, TARDEC designs and tests almost every Army vehicle.
In the broadest sense, the agency is just one of the 375 R&D operations in southeast Michigan. In another sense, though, it has moved forward into something new and amorphous: It’s touching upon points of convergence among Detroit’s automotive, defense, IT, manufacturing, and cybersecurity sectors.
These industries depend on the latest advances in materials, additive manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, cloud computing, Big Data, and the Internet of Things — all the components of the so-called Smart Factory.
The military also has stated the need for improved systems integration, something that GM, for one, has down pat. The best name for these nebulous points of convergence is “Arsenal of Innovation,” a term trademarked by the Michigan Defense Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Sterling Heights that promotes economic development, especially across the manufacturing sector.
Today’s rapid advances in autonomous vehicle technologies are a reminder of Detroit’s historical pre-eminence as a center of innovation. The auto and defense industries came together a century ago when President Woodrow Wilson solicited Ford Motor Co. to build Eagle patrol boats during the latter years of World War I.
At Henry Ford’s suggestion, these submarine-spotters used steam turbines for power and were easy to build because of their flat-plated steel hulls. Ford, Dodge, and Cadillac also adapted existing products and turned out ambulances, utility trucks, and troop carriers.
Michigan has long been at the forefront of military defense. During Word War II, in a few short months, Chrysler began building M-3 tanks for the U.S. Army, while Ford Motor Co. produced more than 8,600 B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft at its new Willow Run Factory in Ypsilanti Township.
Two decades later, Detroit earned its stripes as the Arsenal of Democracy. “When World War II began, General Motors rapidly converted itself from the nation’s largest manufacturer of automobiles to the nation’s largest producer of war materials,” wrote Alfred P. Sloan in My Years with General Motors.
Prior to and during World War II, GM president Bill Knudsen went to Washington, D.C. to run the National Defense Advisory Commission. Cadillac built Army tanks with the great engineer Ed Cole serving as chief designer; Ford built B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft at its Willow Run Factory in Ypsilanti Township — which, at its peak, constructed one plane per minute (more than 8,600 overall); and Packard turned out aircraft engines. Even specialists like Gar Wood Industries produced wrecker and utility bodies for Army trucks.
Construction of Chrysler’s 1-million-square-foot Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant started in 1940. Tank production continued there for 55 years. The space has since been redeveloped, allowing TARDEC and TACOM to flourish.
“That small piece of ground west of the railroad tracks is possibly one of the most important communities in support of our warfighters today,” says Rogers of TARDEC, noting the former factories are now home to 7,000 workers. “It really anchors Michigan as a vital resource for our national security.”
Thanks to current trends including federal defense spending increases, Michigan looks better situated than ever to continue in the defense role, and experts say demand for intelligent mobility will generate a manufacturing boom. A new study by Intel Corp. predicts a $7 trillion global economic impact from intelligent mobility by 2050. With Michigan in a leadership position, the fluidity of its vast pool of engineering and scientific talent is one of its best assets.
“When the auto industry was in trouble in 2009, TARDEC hired over 300 mid-career engineers (who) were leaving,” Rogers says. “We hired into the military segment to support the war effort that was going on at that time. As the auto industry rebounded and is now thriving … there’s this natural migration of talent between the two business segments, military and commercial.”
Other states, like Alabama and South Carolina, have seen rapid auto industry growth in the past 25 years, and the Army’s Materiel Command Center — described by Vicky Rad, deputy director of Macomb County’s department of planning and economic development, as “the mothership of where all Army procurement happens” — moved from Fairfax County, Va., to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. Yet for all the ambitious progress in those states, neither can approximate the breadth and depth of Michigan’s engineering, manufacturing, technology, and cybersecurity capabilities.
For example, Michigan’s leading resources include 14 assembly plants that manufacture 33 different cars and trucks (representing 23 percent of U.S. auto production). Around 70 of the top 100 auto suppliers have Michigan locations, and 1,741 motor vehicle and parts manufacturing establishments employ 134,161 workers. In addition, there are 65,420 industrial, mechanical, electrical, and materials engineers.
Beyond this, Michigan also has a superior educational network, with well over a dozen universities and colleges offering undergraduate and graduate engineering programs, while the University Research Corridor that comprises the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University accounted for more than $2 billion in R&D spending in 2016.
“I think there’s a major misconception of what we do here in Macomb County with the defense industry,” Rad says. “We have … engineers, scientists, technicians, and software developers (that support the defense industry). They’re doing a lot of prototyping and development, research, testing, and evaluation on future-generation technologies.”
While area residents might not know the full extent of the defense and manufacturing sectors operating in the region and state, other parts of the country have long appreciated Michigan’s manufacturing and technological prowess.
For example, the Army of the USA Annual Meeting and Exposition brings together more than 25,000 people in Washington, D.C. each year to see hundreds of displays and attend professional development conferences. Last October, it was the perfect place for General Motors Co. and TARDEC to unveil the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, a fuel-cell electric-vehicle prototype. Billed as a collaborative effort between the two organizations, several Chevrolet ZH2s were delivered to the Army this spring for testing at three bases over the next year.
With fetching good looks that derive from off-road racing trucks, the Colorado ZH2 abandons the Army’s traditional diesel power. Instead, hydrogen is introduced into a fuel cell, where chemical interaction with oxygen results in the output of an electric current that powers the ZH2’s motor. Besides efficiency gains, the truck is stealthy because of the powertrain’s low heat signature. Development took a year from concept to delivery, and the Army said off-the-shelf parts make volume production feasible.
“Now you’ve got a commercial vehicle that’s been retrofitted for military use,” Rad says. “That’s one (example) of combining forces between two major industries.”
Macomb County and state officials have launched a full court press to bring Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II to the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township. Selfridge is one of five finalists competing for one of the two bases. A decision could come this fall.
Macomb County’s campaign to bring the F-35 Lightning II fighter to the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township is another pressing topic, Rad says. A decision could come as early as this fall. “You’ve got technology on that F-35 that (makes it) a major cyber-command center in the sky,” she says. “That’s a pretty big deal for us.”
Even before Lockheed Martin, which produces the F-35, visits local companies to assess their supply chains, Rad says the “hot ticket” in economic development is the crosscurrents in automation, robotics, advanced manufacturing, and cybersecurity. “We’re seeing a 100-percent increase in demand. It has to do with connected and autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things.”
While Macomb County has a “strong play,” Rad says producing the next-generation workforce would entice the Department of Defense — and therein lies the challenge.
One answer goes by the name of MADCAT. A surefire leader in Acronymland, the Michigan Automotive Defense Cyber Assurance Team was formed in 2014 to promote Macomb County’s development and support of a cyber “ecosystem.” MADCAT entices programmers through events such as its Guided Capture the Flag competition, an introduction to hacking techniques that was held in June. The objective is to produce cybersecurity talent — the type of keyboard-tappers who will help an Army Jeep fend off GPS spoofing on the Woomera range or just prevent your Lincoln’s infotainment screen from being taken over by hackers.
Grinding out the graduates is key. “How do we create career pipelines and pathways between the schools and industry?” Rad asks. “Let’s look at what those higher-wage jobs could be. They (graduates) don’t have to leave Macomb County. They could get two- or four-year or master’s degrees and land a job with one of our major employers in the defense sector. That, in itself, is something (we’re) pretty proud to talk about.”
While there’s much talk of growth in these interstitial segments of Michigan’s industrial economy, equal thought is being given to keeping the major slices of the pie that other states desire. The Michigan Defense Center, for example, has issued a report — Protect and Grow: A Strategic Plan for Michigan’s Defense and Homeland Security Economy — that advocates “tight collaboration between academia, industry, and the military” and lists 17 recommendations.
Some are surprises, such as the importance of the Soo Locks at Sault St. Marie, which transmit 79 percent of all iron ore mined in the U.S. Recommended reforms would include the completion of a second lock to handle freighters longer than 1,000 feet, which would reduce vulnerability in the nation’s steel industry in case of damage to the one large lock.
Another key recommendation would establish an innovation center at the Detroit Arsenal. “Many innovation centers exist in Michigan, but none are focused solely on defense,” the report says. By concentrating on the defense, automotive, IT, and cyber industries, the new center would “solidify the importance of the Detroit Arsenal and further its interdependence with the auto industry and academia.”
Protect and Grow names two precedents for the proposed center. One is the Massachusetts Innovation Bridge, created to connect businesses, nonprofits, and academic institutions with federal opportunities, placing weight on medical technology. The other, the Doolittle Institute in Florida, is oriented toward the needs of the U.S. Air Force and develops technology transfer and workforce development. The Protect and Grow recommendations entail building a facility on any of several parcels of land adjoining the Detroit Arsenal.
Investment in aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and 3-D printing is also recommended. To address any skepticism about the words “Michigan” and “aerospace” appearing together, the report notes that employment within the sector has grown by 70 percent since 2010. Strong aerospace engineering programs at the University of Michigan as well as Western Michigan University supply top talent for the industry.
What’s more, according to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association in Sterling Heights, in 2015 the state was ranked No. 2 in the nation for aerospace manufacturing facilities, based on a report by PwC, a London-based auditor. “The Michigan supply base brings forward the capabilities that both commercial and defense aerospace are looking for,” says Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association. “With this dedication comes a commitment to be the best.”
There are more than 230 aerospace companies manufacturing in Michigan, such as commercial manufacturers Airbus and Boeing; defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin; and engine manufacturers Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, and GE Aviation, Brown says.
“We’re primarily both tooling as well as component manufacturers,” he says. “We’re also trying to expand our automation manufacturing processes to aerospace assembly, as well as components.”
As in the automotive sector, Brown foresees the blurring of distinctions between commercial and defense in aerospace. Within the next two years, demand for components made by advanced manufacturing techniques will double, he says, and suppliers must reinvest in smart factories. The state also must make the sectors “a focused initiative for business growth and development,” he says.
Other states — New York, Mississippi, and Alabama — are chasing the same end goal, Brown says. “Whatever region seizes upon and captures the additive manufacturing and 3-D print world will be the Silicon Valley of the manufacturing sector in the country. That’s how large and dynamic 3-D printing and additive manufacturing will become.”
If his reference to Silicon Valley stirs pangs of longing and envy, it should be observed that the Protect and Grow report includes another relevant recommendation: namely, coming up with a catchy label. Attracting venture capital could depend on it. “Michigan has an opportunity to leverage its innovation production and attract further investment dollars by developing a statewide branding of its R&D capabilities, both defense- and non-defense-related,” the report states.
Allow us to blue-sky here: How about Arsenal of Innovation?
Offering another case study of how the automotive and defense industries are working more closely than ever, this fall TARDEC will send out a platoon of vehicles, split between smart and dumb, for an international border crossing. “We’re going to start in Michigan, cross the Blue Water Bridge (at Port Huron) into Ontario, and return,” Rogers says.
So what happens when the autonomous vehicles negotiate the 6,000-foot span that is girded with toll stations, inspection plazas, and some 13,000 daily cars and trucks? “We’re evaluating how well our vehicle can interpret what I’ll call ‘noisy’ feedback and how effectively it goes across,” he says.
Special arrangements were made with Canadian authorities, but Michigan already permits far more operations of autonomous vehicles. “The state of Michigan doesn’t get the credit it’s due for establishing the laws and policies and putting them in place to support this type of research,” Rogers says, “but they really are at the forefront nationally.”
Indeed, the new I-69 autonomous vehicle corridor that leads to the Blue Water Bridge is outfitted with Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) transmission infrastructure. A short- to medium-range wireless communications system, DSRC permits a high amount of data transmission and represents the new frontier of connected and automated vehicles.
“It speaks to our value proposition — why it’s so important to be in the auto industry — because that radio (DSRC) is a fraction of the cost of the military radio we were using,” Rogers says. “It’s that flow of technology, the mass scale that the auto industry drives, and now it makes it affordable for the military.”
While autonomous vehicles are free to roam in Michigan with some restrictions, the state lags in the training of cybersecurity specialists. Without a level of trust in cyber defenses, the public won’t readily adopt connected and autonomous vehicle technology. Another area in need of attention is placing the roadside communications equipment and other elements required for smart highways.
Throughout Michigan, from the highest levels of the federal and state government to the lowest tier of auto suppliers, changes are happening. Just remember: In less than the lifetime of Selfridge Field, technology has come to this point. Around every blind corner that’s being scanned by an autonomous vehicle, it seems there is entrepreneurial opportunity because of the rapid speed of innovation.
By Ronald Ahrens
Sean Carlson, Executive Director of the Michigan Defense Center in Sterling Heights, is retired from the U.S. Air Force. As a lieutenant colonel, he oversaw base-and system-level contracting and gained understanding of what military contracting officers expect from bidders.
DBusiness: What should the general public understand about the defense industry in Michigan?
Sean Carlson: It’s a $9-billion industry in terms of gross regional product. Over 105,000 defense-
related jobs are here in Michigan. It involves all 83 counties in some way, being a prime contractor in defense or homeland security. Not only does it help our economy — and we always hear about the auto industry, tourism, and agriculture — but the defense industry is very important from a jobs perspective, as far as the amount of income that it brings in to our citizens whether they wear a uniform or regular clothes, (and) it’s very important to our national security. The battlefields have changed, the enemies have changed, but the know-how and problem-solving continues to be right here.
DB: What are the synergistic relationships among defense, automotive, IT, cybersecurity, and manufacturing?
SC: We’re moving to what is called the smart factory, (which) is made up of eight components: artificial intelligence and big data, cloud-computing, cybersecurity, modeling simulation and visualization, advanced materials, additive manufacturing, robotics, and the industrial Internet of Things. They’re being referred to as Industry 4.0. An industrial revolution is taking place, and the manufacturing companies that figure it out and move along, they’ll … be around for the years to come. Germany is starting on this path; they understand they need to do the same thing. My point is, this is where the synergies can happen, and this is where our companies need to go. Whether they’re going to get all eight (components) within a year, that’s probably not realistic. Some have already started to do robotics. Some of them have already started to do additive manufacturing. Cybersecurity, we continue to hear that. This is how Michigan can continue to lead the way. We need to (stay) aggressive.
DB: What are greatest hindrances to this collaboration?
SC: Red tape’s always there. There are a lot of onerous rules for small businesses in regards to pursuing a federal contract. I know that, being a contracting officer for 25-plus years. That’s why, at the Michigan Defense Center, we created two powerful tools, or economic gardening tools, to try to decrease the barriers of entry to doing business with the Department of Defense. One is what we call the bid-targeting system, or BTS. The other is called the Proposal Writing Services. We don’t want a small company that’s had their shingle out for two months to try to go after a big contract and become disappointed and disengaged, and never go after a federal contract in the future. We want them to understand how a contracting officer will see them. So we pull data from independent third-party sources and provide a score. What we also do is grab all of the bids that come from the federal government, and we rack and stack them and provide a score there, as well. What we’re trying to do is help people understand that writing a solicitation for the first time, especially to the federal government, is a very onerous task. It’s very time-consuming and a lot of people could give up. We have professional writers who can help you. And the beauty of it is, even if you lose, you’re going to have 50 to 60 percent of your template done — so the next time you pursue something, you can just pull that template out and tweak your proposal. We’ve had a 32-to-1 return on investment with this program between the BTS and proposal-writing services. We’ve helped a dozen companies get over $15 million in contract awards by utilizing this system. And that’s just the first year out of the gate.
DB: Is there a role Michigan’s educational system could play?
SC: That’s where our future talent is, and we’re trying to build pipelines. Our future talent is in our K-12 system, not just our college system. … What we’re trying to do is create these cyber hubs. A student could get a few certifications, and not even have to go to college. They can get three or four certifications and be making a six-figure salary — not to mention not having the cost of college. College serves a very important purpose for a lot of professions, but cyber is a place where we’re severely lacking talent. It’s the same thing with robotics.