PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Finalists from the 2019 Air Force Spark Tank competition visited the Air Force Technical Applications Center here, March 1, to meet with members of the center’s Innovation Lab and observe how failure has led to success for the nuclear treaty monitoring organization.
The contest winner, Master Sgt. Jonathan Maas, was among the six finalists who traveled from Orlando to Patrick AFB after attending the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.
The Spark Tank competition is a high-profile vehicle for Airmen throughout the Air Force to identify avenues of process improvement, create lasting solutions and achieve cost-effective modernization. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson started the program in 2017 and it has been co-hosted by the Airmen Powered by Innovation Program and the AFWERX Innovation Ecosystem.
Accompanied by Col. Jen Sovada, former AFTAC commander and current Air Force Chief of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Talent Management, and Brou Gautier, Air Force Chief of Improvements and Innovation, the group was given an up-close tour of the Innovation Lab, including its “eFAILution” wall, a full-sized display complete with projects and concepts that AFTAC members worked on, but didn’t quite make the grade for success.
Tech. Sgt. Collin Pesicka, noncommissioned officer in charge of AFTAC Rapid Development, explained to the competitors how AFTAC’s Innovation Lab plays a significant role in solving our nation’s “wicked problems.”
“With the introduction of the Innovation Lab in 2013, AFTAC leadership has afforded its workforce a safe space where people can collaborate, prototype and test their ideas without fear of failure or negatively affecting operations,” he said. “By providing things like tools for additive manufacturing, training in coding, 3-D modeling and circuit design, the Airmen here now have the knowledge and capability to develop that 90 percent solution in house.”
The group was outwardly impressed with the mission performed at the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center.
“I never heard of AFTAC before today and I had no idea about the mission they conduct here,” said Tech. Sgt. Oralia Howard, a finalist from Royal Air Force Lakenheath whose project dealt with F-15 and F-16 launcher overspray protectors. “It’s incredible to see how simple ideas like mine and the ones being tested in AFTAC’s Innovation Lab can make such a difference in how we operate as a force. It’s all so exciting to see it up close!”
After hearing an in-depth classified briefing about some of the more intricate ways AFTAC performs its global mission, the visitors moved on to tour the center’s prototype shop. Staff Sgt. James Rensenhouse, a prototype technician, introduced the group to the in-house capabilities of AFTAC’s 709th Support Squadron, including reverse engineering, CNC milling, high-tolerance 3-D printing, composite material fabrication, and the shop’s abrasive waterjet.
“Everyone seems impressed with our diverse resources and many jokingly asked if we had any job applications so they can come work with us,” he said.
Rensenhouse also explained how the prototype team not only manufactures solutions for AFTAC, but it also coordinates with mission partners across the DoD to solve new and interesting problems.
“This place is awesome,” Maas said. “I wish I had known about AFTAC and its Innovation Lab before I worked on my (renewable energy) prototype for the competition. It’s like being a kid in a candy store – you can test things out here using trial and error and work through your ideas in a very positive, welcoming environment. This has been eye-opening and I hope I can come back again for even more collaboration.”
Gautier’s division in the Pentagon is one of the co-sponsors of Spark Tank and much of the funding for the winner’s idea comes from his office, SAF/MG.
“At the AFA Warfare Symposium, it was clear that Secretary Wilson and (Air Force Chief of Staff) General (David) Goldfein pride themselves on encouraging creative thinking and solving problems at the lowest possible level,” said Gautier. “I’m certainly seeing that in action right here at AFTAC, and it’s very impressive.”
It was Sovada who encouraged the team to visit AFTAC because from experience she knew how impressed the Spark Tank participants would be once they saw the center’s inner workings.
“The decision to visit and connect the finalists with the 9S100 community here was an easy one, especially since AFTAC has always been known as a pioneer of innovation,” she said. “It’s all about building relationships and integrating progressive ideas and visions.”