Innovation and manufacturing are diametrically opposed.

Innovation is about creating something unique and different from scratch, a process that is by nature not necessarily refined or economical, or designed to be done within the limits and constraints of an existing production line. Manufacturing on the other hand is driven by tight margins and costs, with the ability to repeatedly produce the same quality product at high volumes. There is a need for this dynamic tension between innovation and manufacturing to drive the best value possible into a product.

Today’s focus on innovation is driven by a worldwide explosion of knowledge and new technologies. Criticism abounds for weapons procurement not being innovative; but look around our military services and you will find many things that we are doing right – innovation is occurring everywhere. The challenge for us is to find a way to shorten the time to identify and solve problems. And to do so in an iterative manner since the problems often evolve and morph in today’s competitive world of war.

Often quoted as major obstacles for large projects are cost overruns and schedule delays. Commercial industry, however, designs and engineers its manufacturing lines to control costs. A cost benefit approach produces a product that is affordable and justified. Designing for value identifies trades in performance that inform leaders early in the process of emerging capabilities. Our experience in rapid acquisitions, as opposed to major acquisitions, can teach us a great deal in how to solve these schedule delays and cost overruns. Engaging industry to understand cost performance trades can maximize the value of our investments. Prototyping products provides real equipment for initial assessment of performance.

Most often these rapidly innovative problem-solving solutions occur in our operational forces on the front line; in the most daunting environments you could imagine. People solve challenges at the point of the spear. Solutions are often commercial products which never satisfy all the requirements, but “good enough” is far better than nothing at all. If we could negotiate all our projects like this, using the “good enough” measure instead of over specifying the requirements of our projects, we would far reduce the number of cost overruns.

I suggest that this should not be a surprise. The young men and women who choose to serve our nation are bright, hard-working, and selfless. It is in their nature to be willing to take on the challenges they face and solve them without a perfect solution in hand. For them “time to market” is a matter of grave consequence.

On the other extreme of innovation and manufacturing from rapid acquisitions is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Acclaimed for its success, DARPA’s design model is touted as the solution for everything. This organization strives for an order of magnitude increase in performance. It is a model of success. The challenge faced here is to replicate and adopt the success of DARPA to various other programs and areas. They push boundaries and take risks. They fail often and fail quickly. Much like our operational units that endure risks and become stronger for it; DARPA learns from both successes and failures. They drive the far future requirements.

Where DARPA’s resources of time and/or funding are abundant and relatively unrestricted, rapid acquisitions processes are effective in resolving urgent needs when time is critical. Classic major programs have far too many requirements to be able to recreate the DARPA innovative environment or the rapid acquisitions method. The challenge then is how to adapt the acquisition process to be able to better incorporate trades in requirements to produce best value for the service. In my experience, the most innovative asset that a program has is not the process for iteration and prototyping but its people and their capacity for creative thinking.

Engaging our operational units and our defense industry in their projects provides a reliable source of information on the potential capabilities long before they become a reality. DARPA prototypes provide real equipment for initial assessment of performance and concepts of operations.

Empowering our combat forces with the tools and knowledge to identify the cause of the problem and to experiment with solutions that impact the consequences of these challenges is key to quick, innovative solutions. People are the key to any problem-solving challenge. Scientists and engineers can go to the source of the problem and work side by side with the professionals that deal with the issues. First-hand knowledge quickly brings clarity to the problem. Forward deploying capability resolves problems, prototypes solutions, measures the suitability of the solution. The interaction between operators and engineers is vital to create innovative solutions in the field.

The Bottom Line: People innovate when they understand the problem design to best value, and collaborate with others in learning from their successes and failures.

Nick Justice is executive director of PowerAmerica, the public-private power electronics manufacturing institute led by North Carolina State University. A retired major general, Justice Justice capped a 41-year Army career in 2012 as commanding general of the Research, Development and Engineering Command.