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DOD R&D program yielding new sources for obsolete parts and raw materials

Vaibhav Jain and Denise Price, small business innovation research program managers at the Defense Logistics Agency, are always seeking opportunities to match America’s small businesses with research and development projects that address critical supply chain gaps and security threats.

The pair work with small businesses striving to source parts, raw materials and manufacturing solutions through Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

In fiscal year 2021, DLA awarded 75 projects worth over $43 million through SBIR and STTR.

Marine Corps photograph by Cpl. Henry Rodriguez
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Issac Nakai, a field radio operator for the II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, works on a radio inside a Humvee at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Nov. 2, 2020. The Defense Logistics Agency partners with weapons system program offices and service engineering activities to qualify small businesses for sourcing parts that have high demand but limited availability, such as field radio battery chargers. | Marine Corps photograph by Cpl. Henry Rodrigue

“Small businesses are the backbone of the defense industrial base, and our goal is to apply the advanced technologies they develop to DLA’s mission and priorities,” Jain said.

Declining domestic manufacturing capabilities and parts obsolescence threaten the sustainability of aging weapons systems such as the air-launched cruise missile and Ohio-class submarines.

“A lot of original equipment manufacturers have moved on to the latest and greatest technology, so they don’t want to deal with older parts that aren’t big money makers,” Price said. “That leaves the services without a source of supply, and DLA is trying to fill the gap.”

DLA uses programs like SBIR and STTR to collaborate with weapons system program offices and service engineering support activities to turn industrial innovativeness into DLA supply chain solutions. SBIR and STTR are congressionally mandated for federal agencies exceeding extramural research budget thresholds to provide federal funding to eligible small businesses in three phases.

Air Force photograph by Senior Airman Aaron Irvin
Airmen pump fuel into a Fuels Operational Readiness Capability Equipment mobile fuel bladder during Exercise Mobility Guardian at Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport in Michigan, May 18, 2021. The 210,000-gallon fuel bladder is designed to be used in austere locations to refuel aircraft and mobile fuel trucks. The Defense Logistics Agency is currently using the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs to seek out small businesses that can expand the qualified industrial base with flexible technologies involving fuel bladders for aircraft systems. | Air Force photograph by Senior Airman Aaron Irvin

The first phase usually lasts six months, as a business determines the scientific, technical and commercial merits and feasibility of a research objective based on projects that are announced three times a year on the Defense Department’s SBIR/STTR website. The award is usually less than $100,000.

“We make sure we have a program of record in mind for any project we put out, so it’s really up to small businesses to present a technology that our warfighter customers are interested in,” Price said.

The most promising projects are funded for the second phase, in which businesses produce a prototype and demonstrate their potential for qualifying for a program of record. The award in this phase is typically for 24 months and $1 million.

Only half the companies make it to the second phase.

“Usually, if a company doesn’t make it to the second phase at DLA SBIR, they either don’t have a good commercial application or transition plan, or they just don’t show the effectiveness and efficiency we’re looking for,” Price added.

The third phase is the commercialization or transition to a program of record and could last around three years. Funding ordinarily comes from the services or another agency.

Navy photograph
Navy Lt. Nicholas Swanda, left, and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Norman Williams inspect pressure valves in the torpedo room of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Alaska, July 24, 2018. Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs are helping to fill gaps in declining domestic manufacturing capabilities and parts obsolescence that threaten the sustainability of aging weapons systems like Ohio-class submarines. | Navy photograph

While the statutory purpose of the programs is to boost small business’ role in R&D, Jain said they also help DLA meet warfighters’ needs. Recent successes include the awarding of a contract to a small business that developed a proprietary process for creating premium powder from recycled, nickel-based superalloys. The powder is pure enough to be used in precise processes like additive manufacturing and is suitable for stockpiling.

A San Diego-based small business is also now an approved supplier for a field radio battery charger that was a limited-source item. The company used reverse engineering to manufacture the charger and reduced the cost by 35 percent.

Another DLA SBIR project even resulted in the creation of a COVID-19 rapid test kit that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in February. The company has since provided the kit to government agencies, schools, first responders and more.

DLA currently has about 70 SBIR/STTR projects geared toward easing challenges like identifying counterfeit parts and using additive manufacturing to fabricate fuel oil coolers. For more information about the programs, visit DLA’s Small Business Innovation Programs webpage. Solicitations and topics released by all DOD components can also be found on the DOD SBIR/STTR website.

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