The U.S. Marine Corps’ product information management systems, like many other legacy mainframe systems, have hit the upper limits of what they are capable of. These are some of the oldest systems in the Marine Corps, so the service decided to try something new to replace it: agile application development, low-code automation, and adopting enhanced industry-standard data models. The product data generated through this program will decrease weapon systems cost and improve warfighter readiness.
The Marine Corps program is an example of how the DoD can quickly modernize its logistics and asset management systems to support the warfighter. The Marine Corps is using application Platform as a Service (aPaaS) technologies to build new applications for the acquisition logistics and product support community. The system automates the logistics provisioning and cataloging process, improves data quality, and transforms the user experience.
“The Marine Corps has recognized that aPaaS is going to be a transformative technology that expedites their path to the cloud, and that helps them to generate value rapidly. The ability to reuse components or whole applications elsewhere will expedite the process of modernizing systems, not only in logistics, but everywhere,” said Carrie Kulp-Hanna, solutions executive for Defense Logistics at Appian.
When the Defense Department invests in a material solution, be it a weapons system, a piece of equipment or even a uniform, it has to create a Technical Data Package. This package is the item’s official description, and has to include all the engineering data and documentation needed to support every major lifecycle activity related to that item from acquisition, engineering, production, inspection, performance, maintenance and logistics through to its planned destruction. These packages include all applicable data, including engineering specifications, models and drawings, logistics and handling data, repair manuals or instructions, expected performance standards for the system and all of its component parts. That data is used to inform the services’ readiness through operating and maintenance plans.
And all of that data has to be cross-referenced with other services. For example, say you’re buying a new truck. Not only do you have to understand how to operate and maintain the truck, and the parts and tools required to do so, you are also required to collect all of that data for every component part of your truck, and if another service uses that same part, that has to be taken into account as well.
“It’s a challenging process performed by a variety of different roles in the DoD: equipment specialists, logisticians, engineers, item managers, product managers. Dozens of people are involved,” Kulp-Hanna said. “And the sum total of all that work should be an item master, basically the complete data model and documentation to support the total lifecycle management for any investment.”
That can mean hundreds of data points and related documents for each of the thousands of parts that may make up a weapons system, all of which need to be referenced by a National Stock Number (NSN) and cataloged with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). And the requirement isn’t “one and done.” The defense components must maintain these Technical Data Packages over time, to account for changes and enhancements to system configurations, field feedback as well as adjustments in the industrial base. And with the aging of the legacy system designed to manage these processes, the resulting lead times to perform the work, and the poor data quality, it was becoming too much to handle. So the Marine Corps worked with Appian to build a new system using low-code automation.
Low-code automation turns application development into an accessible, visual drag-and-drop process, allowing application designers to drag objects onto a canvas to draw their business processes, user interfaces, integrations, rules and every other element of an application. This approach allows business owners and users to be directly involved in the development process, despite a lack of coding experience. It enables true agile development with very high levels of user participation. It’s also heavily oriented toward process automation and integrates easily with existing systems.
“It was very much the goal of the Marine Corps to have their solution be delivered ‘for the user, by the user,’ meaning they wanted to have an advocate for the application’s end users directly involved with the delivery,” Kulp-Hanna said. “They knew that they were going to need to automate as much as was practicable in the process. They knew upfront that this is going to be a collaborative system, so they were going to have to expose it to other users and integrate with other systems. These were all key features that they knew were going to be critical to their success.”
And the Marine Corps was uniquely prepared to implement this sort of a solution. One of the Marine Corps’ warfighting concepts is to adapt, improvise and overcome. That basic mindset that permeates the organization as a whole left it well-aligned to agile methodology.
“I think that agile has flourished more perhaps in Marine Corps than other places in the government because they’re already thinking along those lines. They’re agile in spirit to begin with,” Kulp-Hanna said. “I think that when they realized ‘this is what we’re really good at in our day job,’ applying that same tenacity and ‘esprit de corps’ in their IT development and back office operations rang true for them.”
The system is in development, with fielding expected in 2020, but the Marine Corps is already expecting to see significant benefits. Moving away from DoD-exclusive and toward industry-standard data models is improving the quality of the data the Marine Corps uses, and allows better integration with other systems, resulting in increased consistency.
And low-code automation is driving down time spent in the early tech data analysis phase, from years to days. That means massive improvements in time-to-market, and a higher quality data output. That translates to better maintenance, management and operations, which above all else, improves readiness.