Filling a Need

Do you remember the old Broadway show and movie, "The Music Man?" It opened with a railroad car full of salesmen singing their theme, "You Gotta Know the Territory." How true, and especially so if the "Territory" is the US Department of Defense. This is a story of how a company that "knew the territory" and a company that knew how to build good GSE got together to produce a winning combination.

The US Air Force Expeditionary Forces are ready to deploy around the globe. Anytime, anywhere. And deployment means fully capable to go into action. Munitions trailers are, obviously, a key component of the GSE to be used by both the active Force and Air Guard wings. In 2001, the munitions experts at the Air Armaments Center at Eglin Air Force Base put out a requirement for a Universal Munitions Trailer (UMT). The UMT was intended to replace the two models of trailers that had been in use for many years. The initial requirement was for forty four million dollars and extended for nine years. It included two prototypes and 1,712 production trailers.

The requirement was quickly picked up by Armed Forces Marketing Consultants Inc. (AFMC), which already had a good track record of helping small businesses develop winning strategies in dealing with the Air Force. AFMC is headed by Frank Urbanic, a retired Air Force fighter pilot and program manager with experience in weapons system acquisition. Urbanic had organized AFMC to provide a complete marketing service with associates, including retired senior officers, at all of the key Air Force procurement bases. For munitions, these bases were the Air Armament Center at Eglin, the Air Material Center at Warner Robins and the Air Material Command at Wright Patterson.

Knowing that this requirement was pointed toward manufacturers of ground support equipment, Urbanic did some consulting of his own and found that his best bet for wining the contract and, more important, performing once won was WASP in Glenwood, MN. For more than 25 years WASP has been providing trailers, baggage carts and cargo handling equipment to the airlines and service companies. An employee-owned company, now under the leadership of President Merle Wagner, Vice Pesident of the GSE Division John Hoeper and Program Manager Mike Kalina WASP, has long been recognized as a top line reliable supplier. A couple of meetings later, AFMC and WASP had joined in the effort to get the contract and to design and build the trailer.

At first glance, one might assume that an Air Force munitions trailer would be a simple device, not much different from airline cargo handling GSE. But consider this; the trailer must be able to carry, secure and lock down munitions ranging from Sidewinders used in air-to-air combat to 2,000 pound bombs and nuclear weapons. It must be light enough and low enough to be loaded in a three-trailer stack in a C-130. Too low or too long and it could not negotiate the crest of an aircraft's inclined loading ramp. It must be able to withstand being hauled fully loaded to 12,000 pounds over long distances on rough roads at temperatures ranging from –50 to +120 degrees in freezing rain or blowing sand. It must have lights and an automatic braking system that will stop it in case it breaks away from its tow vehicle and hold it on an 11.5-degree slope.

The WASP-AFMC team, at that time lead by Chief Engineer John Hoeper, made the decision to get ahead of the competition by starting to work on the design even before the first official meeting with the Air Force. The AFMC experience paid off quickly. Starting a new design, Hoeper wanted to begin with a thorough understanding of the good and bad points of the equipment that it would replace. AFMC was able to arrange meetings with some of the most experienced munitions handlers in the Air Force. There is nothing that beats war fighter experience when it comes to designing a trailer to haul the munitions loads that are really needed in combat.

The two trailers that were to be replaced by the UMT were a light, short unit with just one deck opening and a heavy 3-axle unit with two deck openings. The deck openings are needed to permit the loaders to lift the munitions to the aircraft.

In keeping with their agreed strategy of using the latest aerospace technology in the trailer design, AFMC introduced WASP to a company that had been part of the NASA design teams working on the structure of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. By using three-dimensional computer modeling and sophisticated stress analysis, Hoeper and his team were able to design and propose a trailer with three deck openings which was 500 pounds lighter than the specification required.

The three deck opening configuration gives the munitions handlers the opportunity to load a greater variety of weapons. One of the WASP designed UMTs can carry a typical F-16 munitions load while two trailers of the previous type were needed. As trailers are stacked in threes to fit into the aircraft, the weight reduction meant a 1,500 pound increase in other payloads or increased range with additional fuel. Obviously, this trailer will be easier to handle on the ground and will make it easier on the tires and brakes. For GSE manufacturers the idea of obtaining strength without increasing weight is a breakthrough.

WASP followed AFMC's advice and used an experienced company to assist in writing the proposal. So when the Air Force was presented with a professional complete proposal of a breakthrough design accompanied by a Finite Element Analysis Chart produced by the loads and dynamics team it was receiving a near final design. In less than a month WASP was awarded the contract, beating out 16 other companies including some of which were long time providers.Now it was up to WASP to produce. When a company is 100 percent owned by the employees everybody knows how important it is to fulfill commitments. Hoeper and Kalina are the leaders but it takes the men and women on the factory floor to build the hardware. It took team effort to win the contract and continuing team effort to get the trailers rolling out the door to be delivered to the Air Force.

WASP contracted with AFMC to have Frank Urbanic serve as program manager during the final design, testing and prototype manufacture and he operated a mini USAF program office at WASP's Glenwood, MN, facility. They built rough road and incline test tracks and a third prototype for testing. A smart idea before the Air Force subjected the prototype to the grueling beating the Army would give it at its Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Commited to keeping costs down and quality up while manufacturing the aluminum frames for the trailers, WASP invested in advanced milling equipment. Tires are always a problem for GSE and the UMT requires very good ones; high loads with small diameter wheels on rough roads. WASP had them made to its specification and has proprietary rights to the design.

The tough part of the design, acquisition, development and set up for serial manufacture behind them, WASP is looking forward to a long production run for the Air Force and other customers. Delivery has started at the rate of 20 per month.

The WASP UMT experience showed that a competent GSE company without significant government contracting experience can enter the market if they team with or employ specialist organizations that "know the territory" and which can contribute expertise in contracting, design and working with the huge bureaucracy that is inevitable in government procurements.