It’s often said that “you get what you pay for.” But when it’s the government paying for things like helmets that are supposed to stop bullets, infrared markings meant to detect friend or foe in combat and coats intended to keep service men and women warm in arctic climates – who’s to say the customer is getting what they’re paying for?
For 100 years since its inception in 1919, the answer has been the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Product Test Center Analytical and its legacy organizations in Philadelphia for clothing, textiles and an ever-expanding catalogue of other materiel.
The lab was first installed at the Army Quartermaster Depot in Philadelphia when the site was outfitted to provide testing materials for paints and oil, according to James A. Barnes’ “Research and Development at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot.” Eight years later, the lab began testing other materiel including textiles, rubber and paper.
Another mission at the time, according to the lab’s 80th anniversary remarks, was instructing military personnel on the scientific approach to textile procurement.
But while the lab no longer tests oil today, the color technologists at DLA Troop Support’s PTC-A still employs their stringent scientific approach to the evaluation of textiles. Most notably among those items are military uniforms, and lab employees are proud of the legacy of their mission.
Jamie Hieber, the PTC-A supervisory scientist, was amazed at how little has changed in the lab’s focus over time.
“One hundred years later, we are still ensuring that the warfighter has the most up-to-date, most sophisticated engineered technology down to the fiber level all the way up to the pattern and design of the uniform. We have always done that – we’re still focused on that. We ensure that [warfighters] are going to be comfortable. That they’re going to be as safe as we can possibly make them,” Hieber said. “That, to us, is where the pride is.”
The lab continued to grow over time, acquiring equipment such as a washing machine, ironer, cotton conditioning machine and a tensile tester for fabrics and rubber, until it grew so expansive that it relocated to a larger, 35,000 square foot facility in 1941, according to Barnes. It was around this time, in 1944, that the lab began a process of “lot-by-lot” testing of each manufactured batch of textiles used in uniforms.
The lab used defect categories of “major, minor and irregularities” to define issues and find a balance between the requirements set forth by the military customers and the attainable quality by mass production standards of the time.
Though the defect categories have changed and test results are now detailed in full lab reports, the lot-by-lot testing continues today, Hieber said.
“We call it Production Lot Testing now, but it’s the same concept,” Hieber said. “For shade evaluation, we see either 100% or random samplings [of material] from every single lot of goods. And for every single lot, the contractor is required to submit test reports to us.”
Over the course of the 1950s, the lab underwent re-organizations that included officially establishing the facility as a Clothing and Textiles Quartermaster Inspection Division under the Military Clothing and Textiles Supply Agency, one of Troop Support’s predecessor organizations.
According to former Defense Supply Center Columbus [Ohio] Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. Mary Saunders during the 1999 grand opening of the PTC-A at the Naval Support Activity Philadelphia, the lab never stopped pursuing expanding beyond C&T materiel, but the pursuit was temporarily delayed by Base Realignment and Closure decisions in 1993 and 1995.
“The [BRAC] result was that in-house laboratories would be maintained as testing centers under one command and operate in a fee-for-service environment,” Saunders said. “In 1994, the DLA Product Testing Center was established with five testing centers and a central office under command of the Defense Supply Center Columbus [Ohio].”
Saunders described the NSA location, where the lab still resides, as a 27,000 square foot “ultra-modern” space, and one of the finest labs within DLA.
“[PTC-A’s] expert staff of chemists, engineering technicians and equipment specialists are dedicated to continually accommodate the diverse needs of its customers,” Saunders said.
In 2017, the PTC-A was officially re-aligned under DLA Troop Support in Philadelphia, where it is located, to centralize the lab’s functional and geographic chains of command.
Despite changes in its “ownership” - from the Army to the Department of Defense to DLA - and names over time, the PTC-A has maintained its mission and reputation for quality testing.
The desire to increase the lab’s capabilities to meet the needs of its customers also continues, as it has over the years of equipment and facility growth, with focused and deliberate planning, Hieber said.
She described the lab’s 5-year capital improvement plan, which includes equipment, staffing and training for PTC-A employees, that will support the collaborative planning of its warfighter customers and what technology and materiel they anticipate using in the near future.
“[Growth] is a continual operation,” Hieber said. “We’ve looked to increase business not just to DLA, but also offer our services to the military if they need us in whatever way that is … We continue to strive and look for new customers to come and use our services.”
Hieber said that the professionalism and dedication of the staff is also part of the lab’s legacy.
“[The lab] is completely warfighter focused,” Hieber said. “Not only are the people that work here professionals, they are also reservists, retired military or family members of service members. They bring that professional acumen with them and marry it to the fact that they themselves, or people they love, are our warfighters. It makes [our work] that much more important to each of us.”
Hieber said that today’s PTC-A maintains the mission and honors the heritage of its century-long legacy in Philadelphia, and she looks forward to another 100 years of warfighter and whole of government support through scientific testing.
“The fact that we’ve done [our testing mission] continually for 100 years is amazing,” Hieber said. “And I hope that we continue for many, many years in the future.”