Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
As you step inside the impact-testing room, a towering machine that reaches through the drop ceiling greets you from the middle of the floor. At first glance, the vertical pole with a weight attached may look like a test-your-strength game at a fair. But then you notice a Kevlar helmet sitting near the base of the pole. In a blink, a weight crashes down onto the crest of the helmet, leaving a half-dollar-sized dent. You just witnessed warfighter support: the Product Test Center-Analytical way.
At Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support
’s PTC-A, one of DLA’s three product test centers, the Cadex impact tester is just one tool used to evaluate characteristics of the material DLA buys. Employing a variety of equipment, the professionals at the PTC-A generate reports used to make data-driven decisions in contracting actions that support the warfighter.
Breaking It Down
Scientists in the PTC-A perform experiments that involve stretching, crushing, burning or otherwise marring samples sent for testing. It’s a necessary means to their end, a process referred to as “destructive testing.”
“When you send something to us to be tested,” PTC-A Lab Manager Jamie Hieber said, “don’t expect to get it back in the same condition — if at all.”
To carry out their mission of providing conformance testing, the scientists at the PTC-A ensure manufacturers meet the exact specifications for items such as helmets. The scientist behind the computer “drops the hammer” from a specifically calibrated machine equipped with data feeds and cameras that produce a controlled, measurable result for contracting officers to use to validate the helmet’s performance.
The impact tester is one of many pieces of lab equipment scientists at the PTC-A use to “tear, rip, burn, cut or hit” components and items contracted for purchase by DLA, according to Hieber. Each piece has a specific purpose. And every test is meticulously conducted and recorded to provide a detailed report of the item’s performance compared with the specifications.
The specifications come from the contract requirements laid out by the customer. The PTC-A uses the specs and test results to make sure the items meet the warfighter’s need.
While other government and service labs test items for research and development, the PTC-A tests what is already under contract and being supplied to the warfighter — almost like an internal quality control. The lab’s product is not a recommendation for or against use, according to Hieber, but serves as a report for contracting officers to use in evaluating contract performance and detecting potential fraud.
“We’re sustainment testing,” Hieber said. “We’re quality conformance. We don’t design. We are making sure that we’re toeing the line on what the specifications are, what the test methods are and what the items are supposed to do.”
Safety, Quality, Transparency
Hieber is aware that the lab’s results have an impact on contracting decisions that may affect warfighters and vendors, so she strives to maintain the highest quality and integrity of the results.
“We’re an ISO 9001 laboratory,” Hieber said, referring to its compliance with internationally recognized safety and quality standards. “We have a transparent testing program, which means that people can come in here and watch us test. Contracting officers or quality assurance specialists can come in. They can bring their contractors in to witness testing.”
The scientists may be “all about the data,” Hieber said, but they also understand the implications of their work in helping decision-makers make the best choices for the warfighter. Hieber said the PTC-A supports readiness and aids the military services’ modernization efforts.
One recent example was when the lab was asked to test the usability of service-issued leather gloves that allow pilots to use tablet devices while wearing them. The gloves needed to be evaluated since more military services and career fields are experimenting with tablets and mobile technology to replace paper-copy technical documents.
The PTC-A also tests to ensure all uniform items are standardized in their color and shade. For this, an entire room is calibrated to test the cloth for each uniform and its component accessories, such as name tapes and patches.
“The shade room is used daily,” Hieber said. “And so the lights, the walls, the equipment colors, the clothes worn by the shade lab scientist — the entire lab — is a calibrated lab.”
The PTC-A also tests the tensile strength of metals, parachute cloth fibers and more to ensure those items can withstand pulling or compressive forces.
“Our focus is supporting the warfighter,” Hieber said. Her team maintains that focus through honest, accurate and timely reporting.
Recapitalizing with a Purpose
With all the education, training and professional equipment needed to provide these reports, DLA internal and external customers are charged $65 per hour of work. The rate comes with a turnaround of 30 days for reports on all testing. Hieber said the lab had met its 30-day goal on more than 97 percent of the reports produced in fiscal 2018, even with an increase of more than 1,000 reports since the previous year.
The cost of service is a product of balancing operational necessities, as each of DLA’s PTCs are “zero sum” operations. That means for every dollar collected in revenue, Hieber must have a plan to reinvest the funds into the lab, resulting in zero net gain for the year. This includes the payroll for the lab team, as well as equipment purchases to enhance lab safety and capabilities.
“We’re tracking every dollar to make sure we’re truly financial stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Hieber said.
One of the ways she’s managed to balance her zero-sum operation is through equipment purchases that will better support the lab’s testing and expand existing capabilities.
The PTC-A recently purchased new washers and dryers to test dimensional stability of uniforms more accurately. Although it may sound simple, this testing is required to ensure the uniform material DLA purchases won’t shrink, fade or tear beyond an acceptable level, so it lasts as long as it should for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines wearing it.
Hieber also hopes to purchase the same laundering equipment used by the Navy while at sea. Using a standard commercial system does the trick, but using the shipboard systems would provide better results in testing factors required by Navy specifications, Hieber said.
“We want to be sure that the testing we’re doing is as accurate as it can be,” Hieber said. “So we’re looking to be able to replicate what those shipboard conditions are.”
The workhorses of the lab, the Instron devices for testing tensile and compression strength, were also recently updated, gaining attachment arms capable of testing the limits of a single thread or a block of metal — along with cameras to allow the scientists to capture the breaking points and crucial changes during testing.
By expanding the machine’s capability, Hieber said, it can test a broader range of materials and better capture the test data.
“It can take a picture, it’s smoother and we have interchangeable jaws for all of our Instrons,” Hieber said.
The PTC-A Impact
The reports the PTC-A scientists provide aren’t just used for quality conformance and verification. Sometimes they’re used to help contracting officers determine when bad actors are trying to defraud the government, an istsue termed CAGE compromise.
CAGE, or Commercial and Government Entity, compromise comes in a few forms. But it boils down to the practice of using false or misrepresented information to obtain a government contract, and then either not providing the required product or providing one that does not conform to the requirements in the contract.
Mike Moody, a supervisory quality assurance specialist in the Construction and Equipment supply chain, sees the benefit of the lab’s service daily in his role battling CAGE compromise in C&E.
“We’ve been able to report [suspect CAGE compromise test results] up to DLA Headquarters. And those tests have actually gone toward the debarment of some fraudulent vendors,” Moody said. “With [PTC-A’s] help, we’re helping to build solutions for CAGE compromise issues.”
Historically, the PTC-A’s primary customer has been the Clothing and Textiles supply chain
. But the PTC-A offers a wide range of capabilities for testing other items, with hopefully more on the horizon, Moody said.
“We’ve sent them everything from paint brushes to hazard labels,” Moody said.
As an added benefit, lab results can also be used by contracting officers to address discrepancies unrelated to CAGE and manage expectations, Moody said.
“The goal there is to be able to go back to the vendors and say, ‘Hey, you’re not meeting the specs,’” Moody said. “Or if they are meeting the specs, go back to the customers and say, ‘Hey, maybe you’re not expecting the right thing here.’”
Eye on the Horizon
While scientists at the PTC-A are deep in the weeds running tests and writing reports, Hieber also keeps her eyes on the future for ways to best support their mission. One such way is through coordination with DLA’s other PTC labs. If the PTC-A isn’t equipped for the testing needed, Hieber will work with another PTC that has the right capability.
Hieber’s team also works with other government labs like the Natick Soldier Systems Center to coordinate testing requirements and keep an eye on what’s in the R&D phases, preparing for future testing needs.
The PTC-A is involved in DLA and service planning conversations as much as possible. This allows them to plan for investments that will support testing for the military services’ future acquisitions.
“We spend a lot of time up front talking with our customers and the services to find out what they’re working on so we can plan accordingly,” Hieber said. “It’s important that we’re planning for what DLA is going to be contracting for in sustainment.”
As busy as the PTC-A is, its staff is always looking for new customers and projects, Hieber said. As a zero-sum facility, more business means they can afford more modern equipment, more lab personnel and a lower hourly rate for customers.
“I would really like to position us to be able to handle whatever testing DLA needs,” Hieber said.
With a “wish list” of new equipment and lab-improvement projects at the ready, Hieber wants to increase the PTC’s capabilities to better support all of DLA and the services.
The lab exists to provide any testing service or referral it can. Customers unsure if the lab can handle a testing requirement should contact the lab at email@example.com
. Staff will do their best to assist or refer the customer to someone who can.
“Talk to us about what your requirements are,” Hieber said. “Let us try and help to find a way to do the testing needed, have it done in a reasonable amount of time and save the government some money.”