The US Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) is experimenting with internet-based collaboration. With the help of the crowdsourcing gurus at Local Motors, it has launched, a website designed to let soldiers, designers and engineers collaborate on identifying soldier requirements and designing prototypes to address them.

REF is a division of the Army that works to rapidly address the ever-evolving issues facing soldiers in the field. Formed in 2002 to support operations in Afghanistan, REF works with industry, academics and other parties to help soldiers overcome obstacles.

ArmyCoCreate is an experimental website designed to further that mission. It works as a sort of broader version of REF's expeditionary lab program in Afghanistan. These labs are open for soldiers to stop in and discuss problems they're experiencing in the field.

"When we have our labs in theater, soldiers come up to the labs and the labs have capability to reach back to a lot of scientists and engineers," Gary Frost, REF Deputy Director for Futures, tells us. "What we wanted to do with the co-creation piece is engage more of the soldiers so that we can get more than just maybe one perspective. This is a process that we can get online and we virtually have access to thousands of soldiers, or any number of soldiers, at any given point."

Local Motors' Rally Fighter

REF partnered with Local Motors in August to develop the experimental crowdsourcing platform. Local Motors was chosen not because REF is looking specifically for vehicle solutions, but because of its wealth of experience and resources in crowdsourcing. In addition to hosting its own Forge online community, which has designed vehicles like the Rally Fighter, Local Motors has also collaborated with DARPA on military design through the Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle (XC2V) Design Challenge.

REF launched ArmyCoCreate last month and will trial the website for several months to see how online collaboration can be put to work toward its greater mission. The community is open to the public and free to use. Soldiers who are currently deployed or have been in the past identify problems, and the community brainstorms solutions and discusses and fine-tunes designs.

"Soldiers are living and breathing the fight, day-in and day-out, so they have the best ideas for new capabilities to solve their most urgent challenges," says Sergeant First Class, Adam Asclipiadis. "We need to connect those ideas with the people who can make innovations a reality."

The ArmyCoCreate trial will operate in a four-step process: problems, solutions, project and prototypes. The first step is identifying the problems that soldiers experience in the field. The community will be able to vote on these problems in order to push them further along. The solutions stage is all about brainstorming and creating sketches and graphics of potential solutions to the identified problems or to problems that have not been identified specifically.

The next two phases involve the pursuit of the best idea. REF will ultimately select a project to pursue and then post more specific necessities, such as size, weight, power, operation and endurance guidelines. From there, community members will work on specific aspects of the project in order to create a final design that fits the bill.

In the final prototyping stage, the goal will be to rapidly create a prototype version of the design. REF will host two week-long "Make-a-Thons" at the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) Fort Benning with the goal of using 3D printing equipment to prototype the design. Those will be held December 9-13, 2013 and January 13-16, 2014.

REF opted to keep the time frame on the trial period tight because it wants the potential system to develop solutions within 90 to 180 days. That will, of course, vary depending upon the nature of the project, but it's aiming for an average idea-to-solution turnaround time of no longer than six months.

After the trial period is over, REF will evaluate ArmyCoCreate on a variety of criteria, including "community participation levels, the ability to refine and properly articulate requirements, and the capacity to create a manufacturable, virtual design." It will then decide whether and how to proceed with a more permanent crowdsourced model. It also plans to look through the other ideas generated by the site and possibly pursue additional projects.

While the current trial is limited to unclassified projects, REF isn't ruling out using a similar system for classified projects.

"Once we do this, and review it, and decide whether or not this is a good fit for the REF, then we would look in the future, and we've already, you know, thought about, how we could do this on what we call the high side, which would be our secure net," Frost says.

The photo gallery shows a couple of the designs that have been posted on the ArmyCoCreate website.

View gallery - 8 images