Unprecedented collaboration and ultra-fast product development help keep soldiers safe.
By Leslie Mertz
What could top a NASA job putting astronauts into space? If you ask Sonya Sepahban, the answer would be overseeing engineering and the Maneuver Collaboration Center (mc2) at General Dynamics Land Systems.
Sepahban is the senior vice president of engineering, development and technology at the company’s headquarters in Sterling Heights, MI. She oversees the innovative collaboration center and is the first female senior executive in the history of the company.
Before joining GD, Sepahban did indeed design spacecraft for NASA, and she even supported its mission control center.
“I started out wanting to be an astronaut — of course, me and a million other people, right?” she says. And although she may not have made it into space, she did work on both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs. “I began at NASA in manned space, went on to unmanned space, and I also had a stint in military aircraft, so the first 27 years of my career were dominated by aerospace. My passion was for space.”
Sepahban was happy in her career, but when General Dynamics called, she decided she ought to at least check it out. This high-performing company was, after all, a world leader in designing and developing military ground vehicles for the U.S. armed forces and its allies. “I came down for a visit, and the honest truth is that I just fell in love with the culture and with the team, and I decided to make the change.”
One of her major undertakings since arriving at GD in 2009 has included overseeing the creation of mc2, which opened in 2010. “We had a vision of creating a very open, collaborative environment that integrates improvements into operational vehicles faster than ever before,” Sepahban says.
mc2 does that in several ways. One is a virtual community where the mc2 team posts its need statements. Eight technology thrust areas are in the community, including system integration and architecture, survivability, mobility, lethality and power and energy, among others. Customers and users, including the men and women on the battlefield, suppliers and academia, submit their ideas through mc2’s secure website.
“This is not about creating technology and looking to see where it can be employed. It’s really starting with a need,” Sepahban says. There are currently about 300 postings in the community.
Members of mc2 can respond to the need statements, including GD engineers, suppliers, university researchers and small companies who view the list, pick out something that looks interesting and feasible and pitch their ideas to the mc2 team.
“Many of those who submit ideas are not traditional military-type companies,” Sepahban says. “The majority of our mc2 members are small companies, and some are literally mom-and-pop shops who wouldn’t otherwise have considered working on military products or even known how to get involved in the defense sector. They bring in their ideas, they put their gadget in the back of their truck or in a little traveling suitcase, they come here to the facility and we do the rest together.”
“The rest” also sets mc2 apart. Already known for its world-class systems engineering and systems-integration capabilities, mc2 added an end-to-end, very agile process for evaluating the potential of each and every submitted idea. “Ideas don’t go into a black hole or into a computer. We have a multidisciplinary team that looks at submissions as they come in and runs each submission through a full set of evaluations, both from technical and business standpoints, to ascertain whether it’s applicable to one of our products.” Even if the team members ultimately decide that the idea is not a good match for GD products, they get back to the submitter with the status and often with suggestions about other science or technology organizations that might be a better fit.
For those ideas that do look promising, mc2 has the facilities to put them on a variety of ground vehicles and perform a series of tests. “For instance, if it has something to do with the mobility of the vehicle, we have the largest dynamometer in the country. It can demonstrate the use of the innovation like it’s in a real mission right on an actual vehicle,” Sepahban says.
Not only does mc2 run the gamut from idea to implementation, it does it quickly. “That’s a major point,” says Sepahban. When it comes to the combat theater, speed is of the essence because soldiers’ lives are in the balance.
“Just one example to make it real is the recent Double-v Hull (DVH) shape that we’ve put on our Stryker armored vehicles in Afghanistan,” she says. Before the new hull design, enemy improvised explosive devices were taking a toll. The new DVH channels blast force away from the vehicle, an improvement that is saving lives.
Because of mc2’s collaborative and quick process, the new DVH design was able to move from the drawing board to the soldiers on the line in record time, Sepahban says. If they hadn’t been able to shave off those months in development time, “hundreds of lives would have been lost in that timeframe.”
Successes like that make Sepahban sure she made the right decision in coming to GD. “That level of job satisfaction I haven’t had anywhere else, including when I was putting men and women into space, working at Mission Control or designing spacecraft. This is just much more personal, and at a time when our country is still at war, there is nothing better that I could do.” www.gdls.com/mc2
Visitors to mc2 have the opportunity to test innovative technologies in the Warfighter Integration Lab.
Log on to mc2
Collaboration begins in mc2’s virtual community. Registration is simple and it’s free to join. Once inside, you can view need statements and submit innovative solutions:
1. Access www.gdls.com/mc2 and click “register now.”
2. Validate your email address and click “confirm address.”
3. Once you receive the email from “mc2 collaboration,” click the link to create your account and profile.
4. Complete your registration by selecting your “user type” and follow the remaining prompts.