Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Fulfilling the military supply chain

North Carolina still has a lot of textile and apparel manufacturers. Not as many as 30 years ago, when there were 2,300 of them, with more than 278,000 employees. Today, there are around 800 companies with more than 35,000 employees, according to government statistics.

There are a lot of old mills that have been adapted to other uses. What’s still operating in textiles and apparel is highly automated and high tech, more resistant to the competition from low-wage countries that hammered North Carolina a generation ago.

Supporting this smaller but more resilient industry is one of the top textile schools in the country,  the Wilson College of Textiles at N.C. State, and next to it at Centennial Campus, the Nonwovens Institute, a world-class engineered fabrics research, training, testing and production facility.

Much of the regional and even national textile and apparel talent was represented at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State last week for the Federal and Defense Textile Summit, an event to bring together companies, academia and federal procurement agencies, particularly the military’s. FEDTEX was organized by the North Carolina Military Business Center and its Defense Technology Transition Office. The NCMBC and DEFTECH work to expand military business opportunities for North Carolina companies, both established firms and startups.

The military buys a lot of clothing and wearable gear for warfighters. One of the FEDTEX goals was a dialogue about what the military needs and what companies are working on, and challenges facing both.

Two of the main speakers were Air Force Col. Matthew T. Harnly, director of the Defense Logistic Agency’s clothing and textiles supply chain, and Brig. Gen. David C. Walsh, commander of the Marine Corps System Command, the service’s acquisition arm.

Their presentations were a window into a military acquisition system focused on China. Preparations for the next war pose different logistics requirements.

A lot of what is evolving in military clothing and gear will show up in North Carolina, because we have one of the largest presences of DOD personnel in the country, at the Army’s Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and the Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City.

Walsh was assigned earlier in his career as an attack helicopter pilot at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, and he also served as operations director at Fleet Readiness Center East, the Navy’s maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at Cherry Point.

A fragile supply chain

Col. Harnly, based in Philadelphia, is part of a DLA that provided around $48 billion worth of goods and services to the military and other government customers last year. His clothing and textiles branch is in the DLA’s Troop Support organization, which also manages the supply chain for food, medical supplies and equipment, and construction materials.

Col. Matthew T. Harnly

“I like to call us the morale supply chain, because we bring the items that touch the troops and the warfighters the most,” he said. “Items such as MREs, fresh fruit and vegetables, heavy equipment, and, most near and dear to my heart, clothing and textiles.”

He listed some of the things in his bailiwick: footwear, dress uniforms, flame-retardant clothing, body armor, flags, chemical suits, tents and religious items.

“If you’re out there and fall into one of these categories, we’re your huckleberry for that,” he said.

“We’re interested in what you can bring, whether you’re a small business or a large business,” said Harnly. From an innovation, research and development perspective, “I guarantee you there’s somebody from the military or from the government services who’s interested in what you’re doing.”

Harnly’s clothing and textile unit deals with 300 vendors. “That may seem like a lot, but when you start to back out the specialty of what we provide, you can see that really starts to narrow down how many vendors are out there,” he said. “How many vendors provide body armor and helmets. How many vendors make sleeping bags. How many cut and sews we have. How many textile operations do we have. Those numbers start to dwindle down.”

He said the clothing and textile industrial base is “what we would call fragile,” without a lot of depth and “highly subject” to supply chain issues. The supply chain is dealing with the effects of the pandemic and with “economic issues,” he said.

The DLA has been trying to help the industrial base, particularly small business, by speeding up payment, and helping offset inflation. It has special programs to provide funding if additional capacity is needed quickly.

Sometimes issues are more visible to vendors than to the DLA, particularly levels down the supply chain where zippers, buttons, and fabrics are made.

His agency monitors clothing items that are in short supply. There are 48 items on the watch list now, types of trousers or coats, for example. Some of them can only be issued to recruit training centers, he said.

The U.S. military trains and fights jointly, and has tried to approach uniforms and equipment the same way, recognizing that the services are different. The Joint Clothing and Textiles Governance Board, comprised of general officers and other high-ranking officials, meets to try to achieve efficiencies. “As simple as what a cuff looks like. Where’s the cuff cut? How’s the pocket cut?  We recognize some of these subtleties can really help in efficiencies when it comes to your operations.”

A focus on the Pacific

Gen. Walsh,  based at Quantico, Virginia, said “We don’t invent a lot of stuff. We don’t make a lot of stuff. We rely on you in academia and industry to do that.”

The focus today is on the Pacific, “and you’ll hear that from our other service partners as well. China is continuing to develop and accelerate their capabilities.”

Brig. Gen. David C. Walsh,

The Marines in the Pacific will be a “stand-in force,” operating on island bases and ships very close to adversaries, and that will drive how they are equipped.

“As a stand-in force, we’ll provide persistence [and] presence, operating from those advanced bases and amphibious ships operating inside the weapons engagement zone of our potential enemy. So, if you’re familiar with the Pacific, there’s a string of islands that are really close to China and Taiwan. We expect to be operating in and around those islands in small units, widely dispersed. And self-sustaining, for the most part.”

So “signature management” is critical. “We need to be able to hide, reduce our signatures in the [infrared] realm, in the electronic realm, in all the ways that we are under persistent satellite coverage.”

Because the Marines will be wearing equipment and clothing for longer intervals, it needs to be quick-drying, breathable, and layered for different climates – from the tropics to the Arctic.  And the Marines need to be able to easily communicate with wearables that don’t add a lot of heat and weight.

“As they’re out in those smaller units,” said Walsh, “they need to be able to connect to an information web, a data web, that allows them to build their common operational picture and be aware of their environment, be aware of the threat. And as we use them as sensing capabilities, out widely distributed in the battle space, take information that they’re sensing and share that look [with] a larger force.”

“So the ability for them to wear that equipment, power that equipment, share that information back up and forth to the joint force, is really, really important.  So power capabilities on their bodies, communication capabilities on their bodies, situational awareness on their bodies is really, really important to them. What we’ve seen as we try to incorporate that equipment on individual Marines is heat and weight,” Walsh said.

He said a new tactical combat uniform is being distributed, “lighter, dries quicker, more air permeable, has insect protection built in. We’ve got 70,000 sets that we’re buying for our Marines.”

Walsh, like Harnly, also spoke of the importance of commonality.  “Where you can help us there is, as you look across the services, sometimes we are unaware of what the other services are doing.  We need help informing us about what the Army or the Air Force is doing that’s really close to the Marines. Let us know, and we may be able to compromise and do some tradeoffs to make sure we get to a common solution.”

The tours

The day before the conference, there were tours of Wilson College and the Nonwovens Institute.  It was really a tour of what the modern textile and apparel industry looks like. Floor after floor of high-tech equipment, labs and automation. Training people to invent, test and manufacture new materials, and manage this equipment.

Wilson has 980 students,with 68 laboratories and 200,000 square feet of teaching, research, manufacturing and collaborative spaces. It supports the Zeis Textiles Extension service.

The Nonwovens Institute serves a sector that manufactures everything from diapers to face masks to filters and gets support from more than 55 member companies, like 3M and Procter & Gamble. It does R&D for companies and for government agencies, and trains more than 300 industry professionals annually. It can help companies manufacture new products on its state-of-the-are equipment.


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