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AFTAC introduces Innovation Lab
Staff Sgt. Tobee Jefferson, a geophysical maintenance supervisor with the Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick AFB, Fla., installs a high-grade, stainless steel instrument head into a 23900 seismometer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)
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Treaty Monitoring Center introduces new Innovation Lab

Posted 1/16/2014   Updated 1/16/2014 Email story   Print story


by Susan A. Romano,
AFTAC Public Affairs

1/16/2014 - PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Tough fiscal times have placed heavy burdens on senior Department of Defense officials as they struggle to balance budget cuts, sequestration, furloughs and force shaping initiatives.

One organization is working to mitigate the discomfort of the budget ax by finding ways to accomplish its mission while working better, faster and cheaper.

In August 2013, the Air Force Technical Applications Center here stood up an Innovation Lab dedicated to developing technologies at a lower cost to reduce operations maintenance and overhead while leveraging its greatest asset - its people.

The concept is the brainchild of the center's own commander, Col. Chris Worley. After receiving some rather raw and pointedly frank feedback from his employees during a Unit Climate Assessment, Worley realized there was a large percentage of AFTAC personnel who felt underutilized and undervalued; their voices weren't being heard in the decision process; and certain missions were inadequately stove-piped instead of broadly discussed and shared. According to the survey, nearly 30 percent said they felt they weren't being fully employed.

Worley wanted to change this trend and began to look from within for solutions. He knew his organization was filled with highly trained and skilled scientists, engineers and technicians - AFTAC personnel alone possess 151 associate's degrees, 101 bachelor's degrees, 192 master's degrees and 55 doctorates. Armed with this information, he set out to encourage AFTAC to think of ways to develop and streamline technologies at a cheaper cost to address mission gaps.

"There is an enormous amount of talent here in AFTAC, so I started looking for a non-traditional way to solve problems by maximizing the knowledge already existing within the organization," said Worley. "The traditional way of solving a problem, and the one we've grown so accustomed to in the Air Force, is to look externally - hire a contractor, consult with outside subject matter experts or those in academia, or send people on temporary duty. All of those things usually come with a hefty price tag, between travel and shipping costs, contract negotiations, legal fees, and of course, the invaluable price of time. But if I could capitalize on the talent already existing here in the building, it would be a win-win for us and the Air Force as a whole."

He added, "Ours is a readiness mission whose operations tempo fluctuates daily. In many respects, working at AFTAC is a lot like working at a fire station. There are those days when we are task saturated in response to a global event, and others where the workforce finds less structured demands on their time and may feel underutilized. That's one of the reasons for ginning up the Innovation Lab - to ensure the incredible technical, academic and engineering skills in this organization are fully challenged, no matter the day or event."

His high-powered workforce is not just highly skilled in the technical sense.

"I have some incredibly talented 'artisans' on my staff," he said. "They may or may not have a Ph.D. under their belt, but they are highly skilled craftsmen and women who bring a vision and art of possibility to our organization and its missions and are therefore capable of innovating and constructing transformational capabilities, from scratch. The bottom line is this: it makes complete sense to turn all of our in-house potential loose, take prudent risks and embrace problem solving efforts by using what we have across our enterprise."

For this commander, it's much more than about saving money; it's also about executing the center's nuclear treaty monitoring charter. Worley realizes at some point, the Air Force won't be replenishing his financial coffers with additional funds, yet he knows he must still accomplish the international mission nonetheless.

"I posed this question to my staff: 'Can we do our mission as well or even better at a reduced cost?' and I got a lot of worried looks on the faces in the room," said Worley. "I listened to what my directors had to say and told them we needed to dig deeper to figure out innovative ways to accomplish the mission."

In response to his challenge, the center assembled a team of subject matter experts with creative, energetic minds to form the cadre of the Innovation Lab. Worley authored a charter and directed them to focus on addressing persistent challenges and improving global operations.

The concept of an innovation lab is not a new one. In 2004, when internet company Google made its initial public offering, Google employees were given '20-percent time,' where any employee could take a day's worth of time out of a normal work week to come up with a creative project to work on. Google's goal was to encourage its employees to become visionaries and take what other companies might call 'daydreaming' and put all that brainpower to good use.

Apple launched a similar program allowing its employees to spend time on pet projects that cultivated the talents of its workers.

Worley's goals aren't much different, and after researching the commercial industry standards and ideas, he realized he could apply those same concepts to his own work force and instituted a similar policy affording his workforce 10 percent of their time to work innovation.

"I have three goals for the Innovation Lab: to capitalize on the talent within the organization; to save money as the AFTAC mission continues to expand; and to return to the technical roots of the center as we quickly react to mounting Air Force needs," said Worley. "What the lab is not designed to do is create new missions or duplicate previous work already undertaken or accomplished."

This home-grown simulation program will provide a basic training environment for new laboratory technicians, and offers 'hands-on' training helping avoid common operator errors adversely affecting the extremely sensitive, multi-million dollar TIMS system. Further, this initiative will only cost the center around $10,000, far less than the estimated $250K price tag if external bids for development were pursued.

"Having this simulator available to our workforce gives newly assigned technicians the opportunity to 'hit the ground running' upon their arrival," said Dr. Theresa Hofstetter, AFTAC's acting senior mass spectrometry scientist and project lead for the Innovation Lab's mass-spec program. "I was especially impressed by the problem-solving skills of our scientific applications specialists who dove in head first and took the highly technical information I provided them and translated it into basic mathematical functions, and then coded it into the simulator program. When AFTAC's new radiochemistry lab opens in the spring of 2014, we will be able to avoid the cost of sending our technicians to distant training locations because they'll have had the training here using the mass-spec software that was created within the Innovation Lab."

Another innovation is the concept of using 3-D printers to equip AFTAC's overseas detachments with necessary, mission essential materials.

"We have several operating locations around the world monitoring the earth's seismic activity," said Worley. "As with any machinery used on a 24/7 basis, parts break and require maintenance. With today's technology, we can use 3-D printers to create a 'widget' at a fraction of the price of what it would cost to go through the supply system, place an order, wait for it to be procured, and pay for it to be shipped. By using the 3-D printer concept, we can drastically reduce the logistics chain and get the part installed in half the time and at less cost."

A third major milestone achieved by the Innovation Lab is the center's short-period seismometer project. Experts from AFTAC's machine shop teamed with fellow seismologists and computer techs to standardize and align sparing requirements for short-period seismometers, which in the long run will allow AFTAC to maintain its own reliable instrumentation, while limiting its dependence on outside vendors.

"Currently, AFTAC employs four types of short-period seismometers at our field locations," said Doug Dale, AFTAC's sustainment repair facility manager. "Of the four, only one is still supported by a vendor, but all four are still fully operational. But when a product is no longer backed or under warranty by its manufacturer - a situation that's normally referred to as 'vanishing vendor' - we're unable to obtain spare parts for routine maintenance or simple upgrades. This ultimately leads to a lack of standardization."

So Dale and his team began to seek out ways to extend the lifecycle of its seismometers despite the absence of vendor support.

"Essentially, what we're doing with this project is taking old, yet still functional, equipment at our overseas detachments and refurbishing the parts in our own machine shop that can be used in other equipment at those locations," said Dale. "The fundamental goal of this project is to provide quick, low cost, innovative solutions to enhance AFTAC's vital seismic capabilities. I think we're doing just that."

In the future, Worley wants to see AFTAC link up with the Air Force Research Lab to synchronize efforts in order to advance mission capabilities. He also wants to shatter a concept permeating the hallways of his treaty monitoring center.

"There's an old proverb, 'Perfection is the enemy of success,'" said Worley. "It's not uncommon for people with highly technical skills or degrees to be somewhat leery of failure because they look at it as a potential reflection on them as professionals. I'm trying to break this thought pattern and tell my work force it's OK to fail, it's OK to take risks, it's OK to step out of your comfort zone, and it's OK to move away from the decades-old checklist mentality."

To date, the organization has enjoyed a cost avoidance price tag in the vicinity of $1 million simply from innovating from within.

"AFTAC men and women ensured fixes to mission equipment or processes that did not have to wait until additional funding was provided or was programmed somewhere in the future," said Deb Ward, AFTAC's comptroller. "The Innovation Lab removed unfunded requirements faster and more effectively, while making our most valued asset, the AFTAC people, feel most valuable. It doesn't get better than that."

So who can submit an idea?

"Anyone! Anyone who has a concept or a problem or even a suggestion for a better way to do business, we're all ears," said Worley. "The whole idea is to figure out ways to do our mission better, faster, cheaper. There may be some ideas referred to the AFSO21 (Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century) team for action, or some so timely they'll go directly to management for a quick decision. But the bottom line is I want to encourage and bring out ideas people have, regardless of age, rank or academic degree. Some of the Air Force's best improvement processes were driven by our most junior Airmen, simply because they're not burdened with the typical, 'that's-not-how-we've-always-done-it' mentality. Their ideas are fresh and modern, and quite appropriately, innovative."

Worley hopes to see his program benchmarked throughout the Air Force.

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