ARLINGTON, Va. – A Texas National Guard team emerged the winner in the inaugural National Guard Innovation Competition, besting three other finalists.
“I’m humbled, to be honest,” said Air Force Maj. Alex Goldberg, the chief innovation officer of the Texas Guard. He said competitions like this “present pathways for Guardsmen to bring their ideas to fruition.”
The Texas Guard team, whose entry focused on development of 3D printer technology, beat out 110 submissions nationwide. Competitors pitched their ideas in rounds at the unit, state and regional levels. The winners advanced to the final round, held Friday.
Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said furthering an innovative spirit among Soldiers and Airmen has been one of his top priorities since taking the reins as the NGB chief.
“Innovation is one of those things you don’t want to put in a bottle, you don’t want to tie it to a tree [and] you don’t want to have too much process or bureaucracy around it,” said Lengyel, who served as one of the judges in the final round.
While 3D printing is not a new concept, said Goldberg, harnessing the technology for use in an expeditionary environment allows for greater capability.
“Imagine a world in which you can 3D print parts – metal, carbon fiber, polymers for aircraft, vehicles or any other weapons system – anytime and anywhere,” he said in his presentation to the panel.
Achieving that vision meant the Texas Guard team had to reach out to the commercial sector on how best to provide solutions.
“How do we leverage all that really cool commercial technology, whether it is artificial intelligence, cyber, augmented reality or 3D printing?” Goldberg said. “The technologies of all of those are really coming out of the commercial sector.”
With the help of an Air Force program that focuses on small business innovation, the team aligned with a start-up technology company in Pflugerville, Texas.
The intent of the alliance was simple, said Goldberg.
“All of these innovation initiatives are to harness how we take that commercial technology and rapidly field it into the military,” he said. “This is what we are trying to do here.”
That involved producing a 3D printer that would not only lessen large-scale logistical and staffing burdens but would also be more deployment-worthy, he said.
“Part of this program is to make even more ‘ruggedized,’ to make it even easier to move, even easier to maintain – to make sure it’s dustproof, waterproof and all the elements that I need to take this into combat,” he said.
As they developed their idea, Goldberg and his team found that making parts during combat operations wouldn’t be the printer’s only use. The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic meant the need for more personal protective equipment throughout Texas.
The solution, Goldberg said, required “speed and flexibility, ingenuity and innovation.”
Working with an outside team from a commercial entity, the Texas Guard innovation team helped design 3D printed protective masks after being granted federal authorization.
“Now, Texas Guardsmen and first responders around the state have the critical PPE they need to ensure their safety,” Goldberg said.
The COVID-19 outbreak also meant the competition’s final round was held via video teleconferencing, a solution that spoke to the Guard’s ability to innovate, said Keith E. Buchholz, the National Guard Bureau’s programs and resources comptroller and the director of the NGB’s Strategic Plans and Programs Directorate.
“In the operating environment that COVID created, we did everything we could to innovate to make sure the competition continued, and that’s what’s exciting,” said Buchholz, whose directorate organized the competition. “This happened in spite of everything that is going on around us and it’s going to continue. There’s no stopping us now.”
Other final round entries included a Washington Air National Guard video game-like system that maximizes training time for Air National Guard air battle managers, a Massachusetts Air National Guard program that increases efficiency in repairing fastener holes in the F-15 Eagle aircraft, and an Alabama Army National Guard online training system with improved accessibility for Soldiers.
Army Lt. Col. Anthony Laier, chief of the Army National Guard Safety Support Center in Alabama and a presenter for one of the runners-up in the competition, said his team’s goal was to “get our product out to a broader audience that helps units succeed.”
“It’s not about us,” said Laier. “It’s about the National Guard as a whole.”
While the Texas Guard team won top recognition, all finalists will receive funding and support for their entries.
“Funding for each capability that was pitched is going to be a little different,” Buchholz said. “We will continue to work with each team and fund them as fast as possible.”
For Goldberg, this year’s competition was about more than just technology.
“At its core, it’s about a cultural change,” he said. “It’s about getting away from a compliance-driven ‘no, because’ mindset, and moving to a continuous improvement, problem-solving mentality of, how do we get to a ‘yes,’ morally, ethically and legally.”