Information Systems and Engineered Packaging Solutions
Information systems for military applications have seen substantial growth in the past 50 years. As command and communications intelligence becomes more advanced, so does the interoperation of the systems that are designed to meet and exceed stringent military standards. Integration of networking, data management and tactical systems, especially as the Department of Defense (DoD) moves into broader technological advancements, are vital on both the battlefield and in the command center as lives are at stake.
Since 1954, ECS Composites has been a supplier of reusable composite fiberglass containers for the DoD. While working with Hewlett-Packard in 1969, the company invented the packaging solution for the 19-inch Rackmount. ECS engineered the first prototype fiberglass container with large shock mounts to protect the 200-pound networking equipment while in transit or being stored in austere environments (ECS, 2019). The ability to have networking equipment be mobile and operational in the field was a huge step forward in technology for the United States Military.
Today, technology is pushing military applications to a smaller size and weight. Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) are now scrutinized by military contractors for both electronic warfare and avionics. In addition, the demand for multifunction systems and the need to reduce system development costs (SWaP+C) is driving system designs to be more modular and platform-centric, further pushing semiconductor integration levels and device configurability (Cowles, 2015).
Recently, the DoD is also moving forward with a $10 billion military cloud computing infrastructure. The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), which includes a preliminary 10-year contract with Microsoft or Amazon, is considered one of the Pentagon’s most high-profile technology contracts in years and through it officials hope to link together worldwide military systems at all classification levels from various military departments into a single, unified architecture (Konkel, 2020). The JEDI program will change the course of how engineered packaging solution companies work with the military going forward.
Engineered Packaging Solutions
While reusable fiberglass composite containers got their start in the mid-1950s, the rapid gains in container management efficiency by the U.S. military began with the onset of the Vietnam War.
The capability of moving more cargo farther and faster made perfect sense to the military, which had become more involved in sustaining global engagements. By the time the United States became involved in the Vietnam War, containerization had become an extensively used logistics method of operation. Combined with the development of automated supply-ordering systems, containerization of cargo accelerated the movement of supplies through the logistics pipeline from continental United States installations and depots to overseas units and depots. In 1965, the Army and Air Force jointly owned almost 200,000 containers. Every major Army unit moving into Vietnam carried its accompanying spare parts and supplies in containers. The demand for containers increased as the conflict escalated, and eventually, the Southeast Asia theater inventory exceeded 75 percent of the containers then owned by the Army and Air Force. The 150,000 containers in theater represented about 6 million square feet of covered storage (Weaver, 2010).
For more than 65 years, ECS Composites has created integrated and interoperable packaging solutions for sensitive equipment and applications. ECS is one of the few reusable container companies that engineers and designs packaging solutions around a component that meets environmental requirements and military standards (MIL-STD).
The company has four primary product lines that it manufactures at its facility. Thermo Stamped Composite (TSC), which is compression molded on presses up to 1,200 tons in capacity and uses the same composite materials found in car bumpers and military truck components. Fiberglass Reinforced Polyester (FRP), is a 65% (by weight) long strand, fiberglass reinforced, polyester thermoset laminate. ECS also uses carbon fiber mixed into the FRP composite laminate resin and fiberglass material as a method for producing a lightweight, composite material that is particularly suitable for use in applications that have weight limitations.
This method also includes blending thermoplastic fibers and reinforcing fibers together to form a nonwoven blend, consolidating the nonwoven blend by needling or by a thermal treatment, heating the consolidated nonwoven blend to a temperature above the softening temperature of the thermoplastic, compressing the consolidated nonwoven blend successively in a heated compression mold and in a cooled compression mold at a pressure of less than 0.8 bar for at least three seconds, and optionally applying functional layers to the semi-finished product (TekModo, 2020).
Rotationally Molded Polyethylene is made from a low-density resin (ECS Composites, 2020). Vacuum Infused Process (VIP) distinguishes itself by being the only process that uses atmospheric pressure to push the resin into the mold cavity. VIP technology is a vacuum assisted composite fabrication and is widely used for producing large components with good quality, and widely applying in aircraft, shipbuilding, automotive, wind energy and defense industries, due to its low cost, time-consuming, simplicity of the required equipment and better ecology conditions at the manufacturing level (Shevtsov, Zhilyaev, Chang, Huang, & Snezhina, 2020).
Once the container mold is built, ECS engineers and drafters factor in shock attenuation. The basic objective of a shock attenuation system is to allow the enclosed equipment to move. At the moment of impact, the container will flex, and the enclosed equipment will begin to deflect the cushion system as it moves toward the container’s point of impact. The basic idea is to allow full utilization of the space between the equipment and the container (i.e. the sway space) for flexing the shock attenuation system. The container designer will seek to provide adequate sway space to protect the enclosed equipment from peak deceleration forces that would exceed the known fragility (i.e. the mechanical point of breakage) of the equipment (ECS, 2019).
Finite Element Analysis (FEA), which is the process of simulating behavior complexity for engineering projects (Zhuming, 2018) allows ECS engineers and designers to optimize structures and composites to provide the proper factors of safety while reducing weight.
Current Market Trends
One major market for ECS is exceptionally large containers for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV). Advances in hardware technology have enabled more integration of sophisticated software, triggering progresses in development and employment of Unmanned Vehicles (UVs), and mitigating restraints for onboard intelligence. As a result, UVs can now take part in more complex missions where continuous transformation in environmental conditions calls for a higher level of situational responsiveness (Atyabi &Nefti-Meziani, 2020).
ECS also creates containers for small, form, factors to accommodate the shrinking technology. Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) has been in play since 2017 as those who supply to the military are forced to reinvent product offerings and adhere to the new guidelines. Defense platforms now are looking for ways to maximize payload efficiency, which means every centimeter of space, every ounce of weight, and every watt of power are now heavily scrutinized.
Nearly all new developments – whether shipboard, airborne, terrestrial, man-carried, or carried in hand – share a common requirement: Make it smaller, make it use fewer resources, and make it contribute more to the overall system functionality. A lean system is more desirable in the current social, economic, political, and global environments. Lately, SWaP increasingly seems to be the key driving factor, providing difficult tradeoffs over system performance enhancements and multifunction architectures (Liner, 2015).
While ECS can meet the requirements for size and weight, the company cannot adhere to the power, which means having applications and equipment be able to have enough capacity to work in any environment. Despite this, ECS was the first case manufacturer to bring new innovations and solutions to meet the SWaP requirements with lightweight, carbon fiber flight cases and a third rack system (ECS, 2020).
Most of the competition sells commercially. One of ECS’ largest competitors, Pelican, is a well-known brand that sells injection molded containers in retail stores. ECS markets include a sphere of influence, which includes not only potential customers, but also those who are not necessarily the buyers, but decision-makers, end-users, and high-ranking officials in the military or DoD. Intermediaries and manufacturing rep firms also play a key role in helping with the distribution channels.
In order to provide the proper protection for equipment, ECS personnel need to understand the specifications and the environment the application will be subjected to. The process begins when the customer calls the sales department at ECS and provides vital information like dimensions, the payload, the terrain, which could be an artic region or a desert, what compliances and other special precautions need to be met and a request for quotation (RFQ) is created. After the quote is checked by document control, ECS engineers can determine which material is best suited for the equipment. The quote then goes to product management, where a part number is created as well as Bill of Material (BOM). The package is then sent to costing for a price.
If the case and price meet the needs of the customer, a contract and purchase order is drafted and reviewed, and the container is designed into a CAD model by an engineer using Solidworks, an analysis and product data management software. While drafting and designing the container, the engineers pay special attention to structural integrity, which includes FEA. A production review (PI) between sales, product management, quality control and production is the next step before parts are released and manufacturing components are ordered by the purchasing department.
The mold for the container is made and the material is matched up before assembly puts the components and hardware on the container. A final quality inspection, which includes making sure the drawing matches the container and there are no malformations, leak paths or damage, is conducted. After the quality inspection, the order is shipped to its destination. From the time the customer contacts ECS to the final shipment, the process can take 8-10 weeks, depending on the requirements and specifications.
The information flow from the initial order to the time the PO makes its way onto the manufacturing floor passes through several desks. The salesperson taking the information from the customer needs to have accurate data to pass on to product management. The engineer designing the case needs to understand how the material will hold up in austere environments. Even the purchasing department needs to make sure inventory levels for components have enough to complete the order. The assembly folks need to be trained to properly put the components onto the case and the quality department should be able to spot mistakes on the finished goods. If any of these factors are missed, the result could be a late order, or, if a damaged case makes its way onto the field, a failed mission.
ISO 9001:2015 and MIL-STDs
ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 9001 is an internationally recognized certification that ensures quality of products and services of a company. ISO 9001 certification reached 1,138,155 worldwide in 2014. In September 2015, a new version was released which had, for the first time, a requirement for ‘organizational knowledge’ as a resource and to ‘determine the knowledge necessary for the operation of its processes’ (Wilson & Campbell, 2018). ISO 9001 is also a standard based on several quality management principles including a strong customer focus, the motivation and implication of top management, the process approach, and continual improvement.
According to the ISO website, it is recommended that an organization performs internal audits to check how its quality management system is working. If your supplier has a Quality Management System that meets ISO 9001 requirements, they are required to have established communication channels for monitoring customer satisfaction, obtaining customer feedback, and dealing with complaints. You should make a formal complaint using these channels (ISO, 2020).
After several years of being ISO compliant, on October 1, 2019, ECS became ISO 9001:2015 certified. ECS adopted a quality management system in a strategic decision that improved its overall performance providing a sound basis of development. Employment of the “process approach” to incorporate a “Plan-Do-Check-Act” (PDCA) cycle with risk-based thinking. Among the fundamentals that ECS adopted included:
When a company is looking for a supplier, it is often a requirement to have a quality management system based on ISO 9001-2015 to be considered (ECS, 2019).
MIL-STD-810 is a test method standard that defines the environmental test procedures and engineering considerations for the design of a product. The standard provides 29 test methods that cover a wide range of conditions that a product might be exposed to during its use. Common test methods include Temperature (Methods 501.6 and 502.6) and Vibration (Method 514.7). More application-specific test methods include Explosive Atmosphere (Method 511.6) and Pyroshock (Method 517.2) (Trimble, 2017).
ECS tests all its containers and enclosures with the intention of simulating real-life conditions. Certification and testing is available for all appropriate U.S. MIL Specs including MIL-STD-108, MIL-T-28800, MIL-C-4150, and MIL-T-3734, quality assurance system MIL-I-45208, and test procedures meeting FED-STD-101 and MIL-STD-810. The primary test method ECS uses for its containers is in accordance with MIL-STD-810G. ECS simulates real-life conditions, including high and low temperature, drop testing, basic transportation vibration, loose cargo bounce, and water submersion.
Without additional information, a statement that a product is MIL-STD-810 certified or a requirement that a product be developed to meet MIL-STD-810 does not provide meaningful information about the environmental resiliency of a product (Trimble, 2017).
Future of engineered packaging
As technology moves quickly toward cloud-based computing, where information and data can be extracted by handheld devices, the future of engineered packaging will change significantly.
After agreeing to a 10-year contract with Microsoft in October 2019, the Defense Department said it will not be able to award its JEDI cloud contract to either Microsoft or Amazon Web Services until at least August 17, 2020. According to the filing, both companies submitted revised JEDI proposals in May, but they’ll have to revise and submit bids once more because the Pentagon intends to issue another amendment to the JEDI solicitation. DoD officials have also repeatedly said that an enterprise cloud is essential to advance the department’s artificial intelligence projects. However, the contract has been protested four times and is approximately two years behind schedule (Konkel, 2020).
What this means is the DoD will continue to rely on network servers for communication and data management. This bodes well for packaging companies like ECS, which continues to manufacture Rackmount containers for integration and interoperability, even as that technology decreases. The 19-inch Rackmount, the standard for networking equipment for nearly 50 years, is being replaced by smaller rackmount systems, including a half rack and a third rack. Soldiers are not lugging heavy equipment onto the field anymore, instead, SWaP has changed not only the way the military operates, but also the size of the servers they carry. Weight is now a major factor for engineers when designing a container, even for the larger containers that transport and provide storage for UAVs and AUVs.
Eventually, the need for a container to house networking equipment, ECS’ largest and most profitable product line, won’t even be necessary as the United States Military moves closer with the JEDI program as information and data will eventually be instant and unlimited.
For 65 years, ECS set the standard for custom engineered packaging solutions. While the company has kept pace with the changing technology during its history, the cloud-base infrastructure will slow the need for protective containers, especially the Rackmount containers that ECS has been producing since 1969. The need for engineered packaging solutions will instead shift to large UAVs and autonomous vehicles, who’s technology is also advancing daily. Transportation of these very large and expensive devices requires strategic planning and understanding of the material and the payload requirements. After all, it’s more than just building a box, it’s protecting valuable assets.
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