The military needs new ideas and innovative approaches that change the way battles are fought and humanitarian aid is rendered. Senior leaders seek creative and novel ideas, but before committing resources to developing them, they want to see tested scenarios simulated in the real world as accurately as possible and proved successful. Marine Corps Commandant General Robert B. Neller plans to harness the creative genius of what he calls “disruptive thinkers.” As the Marine Corps Times observed in 2016, “Leadership is looking to bypass the bureaucracy and harness the cognitive, creative, innovative abilities of rank-and-file Marines.”1 Yet military forerunners still struggle to circumvent official channels in an inherently bureaucratic system. A designated Marine Corps Base Quantico Makers Lab would rectify this problem.
Promoting a creative culture means more than throwing out buzzwords at meetings and running contests for innovative ideas. If the Corps wants its people to break from traditional methods and think outside the box, it needs to make a dedicated and durable investment.
Makers Labs Work
With the push to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems and the Marine Corps’ long history of frugality, it seems natural to give service members the opportunity to develop innovative modifications to and new military applications for existing COTS systems. Quantico is home to the Marine Corps University, the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity (BKCIC), and, arguably, some of the best minds in the service. Thus, it is the logical location for a makers lab.
Hosting fabrication labs on military bases is not unprecedented. The Navy has such a lab in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Air Force works with the Wright Brothers Institute in Dayton, Ohio. In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded more than 1,000 makers labs in high schools to promote science, technology, engineering, and math educational programs and their attendant opportunities for creativity and innovation. Of note, the Marine Corps does have a fabrication lab at Twentynine Palms, California, “with more than five 3-D printers, a laser cutter, electrical soldering tools and a selection of wood shop equipment, [offering] the tools Marines need to create anything from Humvee handles to drones.”2
At Marine Corps Base Quantico, there is a warfighting lab—the Gray Research Center—and the Marine Corps Research Center, both of which explore equipment and development of items such as telecommunication equipment. However, there is no specific makers lab or fabrication lab. This limits the education and research of students at the Marine Corps University to theory alone, which, for those who need to achieve tangible results, is not adequate. These researchers must have the tools to do things: They need to make things, test and modify them, and then generate prototypes.
A makers lab gives people the means to take ideas from concept to working, viable prototypes. Such a facility at Quantico would necessitate a dedicated building (an existing one could be repurposed), a one-time investment in equipment, an annual budget for consumable materials, and a small staff. The facility should be equipped with metal tools (welders, metal lathes, sheet metal press, plasma cutter, etc.); woodworking tools (table saw, band saw, and lathe); mechanics tools; electronics tools; and 3D printers for building prototypes. It also would need computers and software for processes such as 3D modeling, creating apps, and video editing. Specific projects might require additional equipment or materials that could be purchased, borrowed from other institutions, or repurposed. The lab should have three to four drones and dedicated air space for testing them. Finally, access to vehicles, explosives, and a range for testing would be needed to develop devices that counter improvised explosive devices. All of these are available at Quantico.
This facility ideally would be paired with the BKCIC. In addition to handling annual innovation symposiums and assessing the level of imaginative thought in students’ papers, the BKCIC could manage the day-to-day operations of the makers lab. Marines pride themselves on doing more with less. But they can’t be expected to do more with nothing. Having the equipment and materials to create and test viable ideas is a must.
Dedicated Time to Innovate
Getting Marines to act on inspiration means giving them the time they need to see ideas through to completion. For-profit companies have approached this issue in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common is to have time intentionally set aside to explore projects that employees find interesting. Patrick Supanc, founder of the educational app Alleyoop, says “creating dedicated time is really important. It’s tough to scale innovation when the only time to innovate is on nights and weekends.”3
Some of the biggest corporations in the world also have taken this approach. Novartis, the fourth-largest global independent biotech company, encourages scientists to spend a portion of their time working on drugs for niche diseases. Drugs developed for these markets usually are not very profitable, but the intellectual benefits are high.4 Long before Google started allowing engineers to spend 20 percent of their week on projects they found interesting (which led to such things as Gmail and Google Earth), the 3M corporation was allowing technical and scientific employees to spend 15 percent of every week exploring creative endeavors related to their work.5 3M’s program has led to approximately 50,000 different products that generate more than $20 billion annually.6
By contrast, the opportunity to pursue a creative or innovative idea while serving as a Marine is extremely limited. Evenings and weekends can be spent on ideas—if the Marine has the equipment and can afford the materials to develop them. In looking for the next “Higgins-boat–level” concept, Marines need more time.
The Corps should establish a small number of innovation research fellowships that grant Marines 3–12 months to work on projects at the Quantico Makers Lab. These grants should not impede career progression, but rather should be selective and prestigious—an indicator of a Marine who should be on the fast track to advancement. Disruptive thinkers must actively and visibly be valued and promoted.
When the first Osprey pilots were selected, they were sent back to the fleet for training. There they spent months learning to fly a new platform. Later, when they were up for promotion, time away from their normal career progression was not held against them, because training to become an Osprey pilot was beneficial to the Marine Corps. Innovation Fellows should be treated similarly. What they will be doing is beneficial to the Corps and should be encouraged.
Embrace both Success and Failed Attempts
The strongest motive for developing creative solutions is believing they will make a difference. To ensure that innovation fellows receive attention and consideration, the products of their fellowships should be part of the annual Innovation Summit, and the Commandant should receive a one-page brief on each project. In addition, fellows should know that if their ideas are not adopted or even showcased, it will have no negative impact on their career.
Innovation involves not only the possibility of failure, but also the probability of it. Fellows must be able to make mistakes, have failures, and ultimately find that their best idea is not viable. A zero-defect mentality cripples a creative and innovative environment. As the Marine Corps bible, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting<.em>, reminds us: “Errors . . . stemming from overboldness are a necessary part of learning. We should deal with such errors leniently; there must be no ‘zero defects’ mentality. Abolishing ‘zero defects’ means that we do not stifle boldness or initiative through the threat of punishment.”7
Inventions rarely are perfect on the first attempt. Today, WD-40 is a name everyone knows. What is less known is that the WD stands for water displacement, and the 40 refers to the fact that this particular formulation was created on the 40th attempt.
Marines have always been adaptive, forward-thinkers. From the Higgins boat and the island-hopping campaigns to vertical envelopment, Marines have developed the equipment, strategies, and tactics to win battles. Today they face an increasingly complex adversary in a multidimensional battlespace. It is critical that they have the means and opportunity to exercise the creative thinking that has made this service ready to be the first to fight. A makers lab at Quantico will allow the Corps to further its proud history of fast-track innovation.
1. Lance M. Bacon, “Commandant Looks to ‘Disruptive Thinkers’ to Fix Corps’ Problems,” Marine Corps Times, 4 March 2016, www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2016/03/04/commandant-looks-to-disruptive-thinkers-to-fix-corps-problems.
2. Levi Schultz, “Combat Center’s New FABLAB Provides Tools for Innovation,” Observation Post, 24 February 2017, A1, A6.
3. Aaron Lester, “More Companies Include Retreat Time to Innovate,” Boston Globe, 7 December 2012, www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/12/07/companies-set-aside-time-for-employees-innovate/Y4cWITyVjmpvKhOfV0GQiM/story.html.
4. Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire, “Creativity and the Role of the Leader,” Harvard Business Review 86, no. 10 (2008): 100–109.
5. R. Luecke and R. Katz, Managing Creativity and Innovation (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003), 109.
6. Erik Wahl, Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius (New York: Crown, 2013), 28.
7. Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting (Washington, DC, 1997), 57.