SSC-Natick Press Release
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Natick, MA 01760-5012
Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
Date: February 26, 2003
Soldier Feedback Helps Improve Equipment
NATICK, Mass. -- The soldier shivering on guard duty left an impression on Dave Cheney, then a senior enlisted advisor, during a visit to Alaska in 1978 with a project engineer who was developing new load bearing equipment.
"I said to myself 'This guy is freezing,'" Cheney recalled, the Operational Forces Interface Group (OFIG) team leader at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center here (now retired). "When I asked the (executive officer) who was in a heated tent if the cold weather was a problem for his troops, he said no. Then I knew we had to go to the soldier, the individual user to get accurate information."
Going to the soldiers for a firsthand account on the performance of items soldiers wear, carry or eat is the hallmark of OFIG since it was officially established in 1986.
Cheney said the Department of Army Materiel Development and Readiness (now Army Materiel Command) commander was concerned about getting soldier feedback on the items it issues and makes available to soldiers, so the Natick Research and Development Center director (now the Natick Soldier Center) established an office here.
"We always used to ask the supply officer or somebody else in command about equipment, but they usually didn't report any problems, most likely because they didn't want to cause any controversy," Cheney said.
Starting with one officer and one civilian employee, the office has grown to a staff of two enlisted advisors, three engineering psychologists, six equipment specialists, an exhibit coordinator, administrative assistant and team leader.
OFIG gains customer feedback through installation visits, user assessments, and exhibits or technical displays. When called upon, quick reaction teams respond to deployed units needing immediate assistance.
Installation visits are the core of OFIG. The team initially visited four installations per year, but that's now expanded to as many as 10 visits annually, with at least one visit to a Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps base.
Within two weeks after returning from a major training exercise or deployment, soldiers are gathered to fill out surveys that are tailored to their type of unit and are interviewed to help determine the functional performance and user satisfaction of items developed at the Soldier Systems Center.
"We tell them that they have an opportunity to make changes," Max Biela, an equipment specialist, said. "We always say to be perfectly honest and to tell us why they like or don't like something."
They are candid, according to Cheney, but little surprises him.
"The only thing that shocks me is to find out that a unit should have received an item six months ago, and we find out it's stuck in some supply room," Cheney said.
Surveys have shown that the infantryman spends an average of $400 of his own money purchasing gear. What they're buying is another key piece of information the team is trying to uncover, according to Biela.
Gloves, boots, flashlights and multi-purpose tools are among commonly-purchased items. OFIG compiles survey information to see if different equipment should be incorporated into the supply system.
"There are some people who won't buy anything, but almost everybody will buy something," Cheney said. "Soldiers shouldn't be buying their own equipment, but everybody has a preference. A rucksack or sleeping bag means something different to an infantryman than to someone with an office job."
Sometimes the feedback can't wait, which is why since the Gulf War, OFIG has sent a team that can immediately investigate problems with fielded equipment or provide support to equipment supplied to units deployed around the world.
In several cases, OFIG equipment specialists, many with extensive military experience, have responded to a problem by escorting, sizing and fitting, and issuing equipment along with training needed in an emergency.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, equipment specialists noticed many supplies were never distributed because shipping containers arrived without any easy way to identify what was inside or where it was supposed to go. Now every shipping container is labeled with a bar code sticker to avoid confusion and delays.
In Macedonia, equipment specialists learned that soldiers were putting wood screws into the tread of their Intermediate Cold/Wet Boots for traction, but the problem turned out to be the wrong type of rubber composition. More recently, a team from OFIG traveled to Afghanistan to try to solve problems with cold-weather clothing in the mountain environment.
Well before any product is considered for fielding, OFIG assists project managers in locating units from a list of volunteers and coordinating user assessments. Once an appropriate unit has been identified, OFIG sets up the user assessment to meet the requirements while minimizing changes and disruptions to the unit training schedule or assessment. OFIG works with the assigned evaluator from the Army Test and Evaluation Command to ensure the unit and equipment meets the needs of the Operational Requirements Document and Test and Evaluation Master Plan, such as type of unit and climatic conditions.
Whether it's skis in Alaska, boots in Panama or a new military ration entrιe in Texas, anything from prototypes to finished products judged individually or compared with competing items are subject to evaluations. Soldiers' survey feedback becomes part of the process in determining whether or not an item should be fielded or if the item needs improvement.
Just about every item goes through an assessment before it makes it to the field, according to Biela.
As OFIG grew and became knowledgeable in all commodity areas, another function that took off was exhibits.
Because of an exhibit on Capitol Hill, the Soldier Enhancement Program was established and funded to slash research and development time to less than three years from the normally seven to 10 years by evaluating existing commercial items and adopting them into the supply system.
Cheney said the exhibits at trade shows are meant to draw interest from industry and academia to what's going on at the Soldier Systems Center and broaden manufacturing resources.
Visits to military installations give users a different chance to provide feedback on current or future soldier items. The group travels to as many as 60 locations annually, and sometimes installation visits are combined with an exhibit.
"Information is important to soldiers," Cheney said. "They want to know what's coming out. Their lives are on the line."
For more information about SSC, please visit our website at http://www.natick.army.mil.