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Why The U.S. Army Is Crowdsourcing Product Ideas From Soldiers

Any designer knows it’s important to get early feedback from end users. To speed up development times, the military is now taking that lesson to heart–leading to both great and wacky ideas.

Why The U.S. Army Is Crowdsourcing Product Ideas From Soldiers
[Image: Moscow Military Parade via Loskutnikov / Shutterstock]

When you need to come up with new equipment in a hurry, it helps to involve end-users as early in the process as possible. That way, you don’t have to go back and change something when the product comes up against reality.

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That’s why the Rapid Equipping Force–which develops quick fixes for the U.S. Army after units have deployed–is interested in the idea of co-creation. By involving soldiers at an early stage, it aims to cut the lead-time for new pieces of kit. At the moment, that means troops who are fighting the war in Afghanistan.

“It’s about having the end-user feedback throughout the process,” says Gary Frost, REF’s deputy director for futures. “If we’re going to do something rapidly where we’re equipping within 180 days, it’s very important that we have a clear understanding from the soldiers’ perspective of what the challenge is, and what it would take to address that. It gives us a higher degree of possibility for getting it right.”

That’s the theory anyway. REF has only just started Army CoCreate, a site where personnel can make product suggestions, or express the need for some capability. So far, the response has been positive. Since mid-October, people have submitted more than 50 ideas to the platform, ranging from the solidly practical to the wacky-weird.

For example, one user suggests “barriers that also store non-potable water.” Another wants a “front loader bucket with funnel for filling sandbags.” Someone else imagines “goggles that don’t ever fog up.” Or how about a “deployable hydroponic greenhouse to grow fresh produce in theater?”

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Of course, there are some combat concepts as well, such as the idea for a “spherical autonomous robot rolling onto the ground of front line.” “Pack with fire power and take active role in attack and conquer,” the submission says.

Visitors to the site can also upload designs and renderings. REF plans to pick one project to go forward to two “Make-a-Thons” it’s hosting at Fort Benning in Georgia. At that stage, it will divide up the project in parts, so engineers can work on each piece independently.

REF is collaborating with Massachusetts-based Local Motors, a well-known open-source car company, to run the website and the prototyping events. Local Motors built a niche vehicle with a huge community of contributing designers, and has already partnered with DARPA to design and create new military vehicles.

Frost says REF wants to learn from the crowd. “We look to industry for best practices. Right now, co-creation is a major trend. We’re trying to see if that approach for rapid prototyping and design can assist us.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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