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3-star challenges Marines to submit top ideas to improve the Corps

June 15, 2016 (Photo Credit: Scrren shot via Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps launched its first-ever logistics innovation challenge Wednesday with the goal of advancing and improving capabilities and processes. Lt. Gen. Mike Dana, deputy commandant of Installations and Logistics, is leading the effort. He appeared in a humorous video announcing the competition as he completes several obstacle course challenges.  

"I want every Marine to be a leader in innovation — that means you," Dana says in the video, as he slogs through murky brown water, rifle in hand.

The scene later switches to a trail in which Dana and other Marines hump with heavy packs and rifles. "Man, this pack's heavy," he said. "We need to find a way to reduce the load on Marines." 

This challenge focuses on two areas: the "maker challenge" and the "wearables challenge." 

The maker challenge is a scenario that gives less than one month and unlimited resources to build something to increase readiness — anything from new radios to rifle scopes.

This effort looks to draw from recent technologies such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, new computer software and inexpensive micro-computers to improve warfighting capabilities.

The wearables challenge has participants use technologies such as smart watches, virtual reality glasses or body sensors to improve logistics processes. Marine administrative message 304/16, which announced the innovation challenge, described such technology as an enormous industry that the Defense Department has yet to fully embrace.

"This technology area has potential across all warfighting functions," the message states. "It is time to find new and creative ways to implement wearables that give us a tactical advantage over our adversaries.”

Marines, sailors and civilians have 30 days to submit their best ideas on the Navy Department's innovation website. Winners will partner with a government lab in August to prototype their idea, which could be fielded across the fleet. 

Disruptive thinkers

Dana's announcement follows Commandant Gen. Robert Neller's push for more innovation in the ranks. 

In February, Neller tasked the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab with hosting an innovation symposium in the hopes of launching a “cultural revolution” in which Marines are encouraged to come up with solutions, and leaders serve as advocates to accelerate those ideas to decision makers.

Neller wants "disruptive thinkers" — Marines who live outside of the box, love to challenge the status quo and are often viewed as trouble makers — to share their ideas about how to make the Corps better. 

“This effort is emblematic of the commandant's growing effort to empower our innovative Marines across the force,” said Capt. Chris Wood, an innovation leader who works for Dana and serves as co-lead for additive manufacturing, commonly called 3-D printing. “Our goal is to unleash the innovative potential in our Marines, sailors and civilians. Through that, we hope to solve some real problems and rapidly learn how to do it better for the next iteration.”

Wood said the Warfighting Lab's symposium was a critical piece of that effort that allowed a diverse group of Marines of all ranks and backgrounds to talk candidly about pressing challenges toward improved innovation. Marines have presented ideas for everything from lightweight body armor to improved warehousing technologies and unmanned ground convoys. A team of II Marine Expeditionary Force noncommissioned officers even proposed a plan to design and build their own reconnaissance quad copter in just one week.

Beyond ideas for better gear and processes, Wood said the symposium has seen marked success in the need “to close the gap between those who understand the problems best — mostly our junior enlisted and officers — and those who have the authority and resources to solve the problems — mostly those of us currently serving in headquarters.”

Any hierarchically structured, large organization with such a powerful culture can expect challenges — but action is replacing ideas, he said. Many leaders are embracing the change, he said. They are including more Marines in their decision-making process, and are allowing Marines to take some risks and make mistakes.

This innovation challenge is one effort in that endeavor, Wood said. The Corps is also experimenting with a crowdsourcing tool built by National Defense University to collect the ideas and share them with each other to help refine the idea.

“In addition to trying to solve some current, real-world, problems, we also want to learn more about this approach and share our results with other headquarters organizations and commanders in the operating forces,” he said. “We are partnering with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory who will look to expand and replicate initiatives like this one. A few innovation projects are just a small start towards a larger campaign to reinvigorate the innovative culture that runs throughout our Marine ethos.”

Marines can submit ideas for the new innovation challenge that are as detailed or simple as they desire, officials said. Teams are allowed and encouraged. Submissions will be evaluated on creativity and originality, how easily the idea is can be achieved and implemented, and overall benefit to the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps will notify the winners starting Aug. 1.

Several labs, to include the National Defense University’s National Security Technology Accelerator Program and the Army Research Lab, have volunteered to partner with challenge winners to mature their ideas. The Corps will pay to send winners to the appropriate lab for prototyping, and provide some one-on-one time for winners to discuss their ideas with top leaders.

Winners may also be asked to participate in a five-day “innovation boot camp” that will teach participants critical skills for creative problem solving, critical thinking and entrepreneurial-style tools.

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