Business Tools

Selling to the Military: What They Want May Be in Your Stockroom

SEMA News—June 2011

By Supplying the Military, Opportunities Exist to Reach a Far Wider Customer Base

By Chad Simon

M-ATV is a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) all-terrain vehicle
The M-ATV is a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) all-terrain vehicle and, at a curb weight of 25,000 lbs., is the smallest vehicle Oshkosh Defense has made for the U.S. military.
Adapting to a need to deploy troops anywhere in the world, U.S. military forces find themselves requiring trucks and transportation equipment more than ever before. This trend has created a steady opportunity for businesses in the automotive aftermarket to expand their customer base, while helping to supply the military with quality specialty-equipment products. High-performance brakes and engine equipment, blast-attenuating seats and specialized equipment for vehicles operating at high altitudes and in challenging terrain are among the parts in demand.

To learn what it takes to market product for use by American armed services, we talked to some specialty-equipment manufacturers that have branched out from traditional commercial sales to work with military suppliers. Among those willing to share their experiences were FOX Racing Shox, ICON Vehicle Dynamics, Wilwood Engineering, MasterCraft Safety, Roush Yates Performance Products and Rhino Linings.

Supplying the Military

The technology developed over the past three decades for light, medium and heavy vehicles operating in off-road terrain translates well to military requirements, particularly in theaters such as Afghanistan, according to Brian Godfrey, FOX Racing Shox’s powersports division marketing manager.

FOX Racing Shox has been a military supplier since 2003, starting with shocks for the unmanned Predator B. Marvin Engineering has been using FOX shocks since 2005, and in 2007, the company created a vehicle-mobility solution for a British army vehicle known as the Jackal. FOX—which created a separate division to handle military projects called FOX Defense Suspension—sells a range of passive dampers, high-performance position-sensitive coilovers and air-spring shock absorbers.

In the case of ICON Vehicle Dynamics, word of mouth has proved to be a powerful tool. “Once you get your foot in the door, business just spreads like wildfire,” said Jeremy Johnson, ICON sales and marketing. “We had a one-time contract with the Israeli military for Ford components for about 150 vehicles, and we continue to contract with Oshkosh Defense to outfit their F-550s. The engineer we’ve been dealing with at Oshkosh spread our name through some of their fire and rescue division. We mostly sell them fabricated components that we already make and also custom components, including frame brackets for radius arms and adjustable Panhard bars.”

Executive Summary:

  • Defense and military buyers are keen to acquire specialized equipment to enhance vehicle performance and safety.
  • Oftentimes, off-the-shelf aftermarket parts made by SEMA members can satisfy their needs.
  • Military buyers from a variety of different services and organizations regularly attend the SEMA Show.
  • Among the requirements are that all parts be made in the United States, and sometimes extensive testing must be conducted.
Wilwood Engineering, a first-tier supplier, provides brakes, calipers, rotors and pads for military Humvees (HMMWV) to AM General, which sells the vehicles to the military. The military customer wanted to upgrade from Jeeps to field combat tactical vehicles, which can absorb gunshots and offer increased durability in the field. A heavier vehicle was the result, according to Ken Hale, Wilwood’s director of sales and marketing.

The HMMWV brakes that came from the original factory were wearing out quickly in a desert environment. It also took a long time to change out the pads because of the way they were designed. Wilwood redesigned the brake system for four-wheel vehicles so that the pads could be changed out in less than half the time. This also resulted in the brakes lasting twice as long.

MasterCraft Safety became involved in the U.S. Army’s low-signature-cab program in 2006. At the beginning of the current conflicts in the Middle East, most of the army’s tactical vehicles were not armored, so a rush method was needed to get armor into the field. The company that developed the low-signature cab ended up choosing MasterCraft’s blast-attenuating seat for its off-road capabilities, according to Mike Ross, MasterCraft’s director of technology.

“A military OEM contacted us, and we went through a test cycle with them,” Ross said. “This particular seat was new to the military. The soldiers liked it, and we knew the seat had very good energy attenuation. As the conflicts evolved, the military realized they needed seats that absorbed a lot of energy.”

Wilwood Engineering provides brakes, calipers, rotors and pads for military Humvees to AM General, which sells the vehicles to the military.
Wilwood Engineering provides brakes, calipers, rotors and pads for military Humvees to AM General, which sells the vehicles to the military.
Wilwood Engineering provides brakes, calipers, rotors and pads for military Humvees

Some of Wilwood’s military sales are of products that are essentially the same as what they sell to the enthusiast market.

The company is currently selling to five or six OEMs, but the market is slowing down considerably across the board due to the downturn in need. There are currently about 25,000 to 30,000 trucks in the field with MasterCraft Safety seats in them, according to Ross.

One of MasterCraft’s business partners in selling custom products, Roush Yates Performance Products also uses custom alternators and lithium batteries to solve power issues. Most of the parts made by Roush Yates are specialized, said Bucky Gregory, the company’s vice president of sales.

“A good example of this is seatbelts,” he said. “Specialized military belts have a one-hand release to make it easy to exit the vehicle.”

Rhino Linings Corp. initially became involved in military sales with an Israeli company called Mofett in designing a patented, lightweight, ballistic armament material using the Rhino Linings spray cast elastomer as a bonding agent. That particular design was incorporated in several vehicle designs, such as the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle, Stryker and other armament packages that are applied to military vehicles. It allows the vehicle to take 20-mm hits without penetration, according to Ron LoPresto, Rhino’s technical director.

For one of Rhino’s customers—High Impact Technologies—the company designed a system called Battle Jacket, which prevents or minimizes fuel leakage on fuel tankers due to small arms fire. The Battle Jacket is used in combination with an ingredient that HIT provides for Rhino’s armor elastomer—a self-sealing product that is applied to the exterior of all fuel tanks.

“These units can take multiple hits from armor-piercing projectiles and not leak whatsoever,” LoPresto said. “We spent several months in Iraq training the applicators on how to spray the tankers.”

MaseterCraft Safety Defense blast-attenuation Crew Seat
The MaseterCraft Safety Defense blast-attenuation Crew Seat weighs between 15–29 lbs., compared to competitive seats that weigh between 70–100 lbs.
Oshkosh Defense supplies heavy, medium and light vehicles to the U.S. Army and Marines, and sometimes turns to aftermarket manufacturers to help meet needs for components. Its benchmark product is the company’s proprietary TAK-4 independent suspension, which is the highest mobility performing suspension available, according to Rob Messina, the company’s vice president of core technology. Oshkosh also provides integrated armor solutions and is a total vehicle manufacturer in the tactical wheeled vehicle fleet. The Heavy Equipment Transporter is built around trailering tanks. The M-ATV is a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected all-terrain vehicle and, at a curb weight of 25,000 lbs., is the smallest vehicle Oshkosh has made for the U.S. military. The military is continuously looking for mobile vehicles with a high level of protection, and the M-ATV has HMMWV level of mobility with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected level of protection against IED-type blasts, according to Messina.

Increasingly, Oshkosh is becoming as well-known for the company’s aftermarket support as it is for vehicle design and production. Oftentimes, Oshkosh will receive a request for a specific capability before proving functionality of that capability with what’s called a “first article test,” which can be extensive because it’s negotiated and collaboratively decided upon by the government.

How to Gain Military Approval

It takes patience, commitment and flexibility to sell to the military—which, like commercial customers, is interested in affordability, quality and the capability to deliver the right product on time, FOX’s Godfrey said.

Many products are applicable to off-road enthusiasts and military customers alike. The defense business represents a new market completely, exposing FOX’s brand to the United States and allied forces and defense contractors in the United States and abroad. There are various types of military approval, but the key thing is to demonstrate results.

“The companies we sell to are not hard to deal with because we get great communication across the board,” ICON’s Johnson said. “If we need to change something on our part, we’re able to get them a revised part the same day.”

Rhino Linings’ Battle Jacket
Rhino Linings’ Battle Jacket is designed to prevent or minimize fuel leakage on fuel tankers due to small arms fire.
But attracting military buyers can be a rigorous process. They will most likely request full 3-D CAD drawings to drop into the files with which they’re currently working. Sometimes they want material specifications, and all parts must be made in the United States, even the bolts.

To obtain military approval, ICON offers sample parts for evaluation. “It all comes down to product testing,” Johnson said. “If they like the design and the way it bolts to the vehicle, then you don’t have to change anything.”

Wilwood’s modus operandi is similar to ICON’s, where it manufactures the product and submits it to the military for approval. If the buyers like it, they make an offer. In order for a company to keep bidding on military contracts, all parts must qualify for rigid Six-Sigma quality, according to Hale.

Roman Spandrio, Wilwood’s applications engineering manager, believes that his company fits the supply partner profile for which military and government agencies are looking.

“We’re an American company and considered a small business, which are attractive qualities for a government and military supplier,” Spandrio said. “Beyond that, we’re an engineering company that offers the full spectrum of support. We’re a solutions partner on the engineering end in spec’ing out the product necessary to meet the military’s performance and durability goals. We also have integrated our accounting personnel, and we have field service representatives who are able to support test sites as well as manufacturing and assembly and ongoing engineering support. To have one company that you can call and have all that taken care of is not only an advantage to the military but to any customer.”

MasterCraft’s seats have undergone testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds—the army’s test center in Maryland. “To be considered for a military vehicle, you’re going to have to go through the rigorous testing that all military vehicles go through,” said Kelli Willmore, MasterCraft’s vice president of marketing. “Sometimes it takes months; sometimes it takes years.”

Instead of working directly with military buyers, MasterCraft works with military engineers, so it’s necessary to sell them on the product first. Companies are looking outside of their normal realm, and they’re going to the SEMA Show and looking to the racing and aftermarket industries to make their vehicles faster and lighter to meet certain weight requirements. According to Willmore, MasterCraft’s seats weigh between 15–29 lbs., compared to competitive seats that weigh between 70–100 lbs.

But before a company can sell anything to the military, certain requirements must be met. “When we first started working with them, they were just starting to look at occupant safety in a different way,” Willmore said. “It wasn’t just armor; it was systems inside the vehicle that work with the armament to contain and protect the occupant. The military tested our seats, and we also independently verified them. One such test we have performed was to the NATO Stanag 4569 Level 2a standard.”

Military buyers are also looking for durability, longevity, reusability and products that are made of non-hazardous materials to both the occupant and environment, Rhino Linings’ LoPresto said. They are becoming more astute customers, and they don’t want products that will deteriorate due to abuse or corrosion.

“We have also developed our product so it’s a good material for blast mitigation,” LoPresto said. “After the attack in Saudi Arabia on Khobar Towers in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel, we did a test with the Air Force where you could reduce the standoff from 200 ft. to 100 ft. and still maintain a better than 90% survivability rate.”

Military vs. Commercial Market

For an aftermarket manufacturer, the ideal situation would be to supply the exact same parts to the military that are already in the civilian catalog. Sometimes
it works that way, sometimes not...
For an aftermarket manufacturer, the ideal situation would be to supply the exact same parts to the military that are already in the civilian catalog. Sometimes it works that way, sometimes not, but for the most part the specifications demanded by the military customer are very similar, if not identical, to the civilian product.

At ICON, some components are variations of components already made, so the company adapts the existing component. “For instance, the military will build something for an F-550, where we’ll make it for an F-250 or F-350,” Johnson explained. “We’ll have to change the bracket, but as far as design and changing the part’s strength, it’s all the same. Our off-the-shelf items are good enough for all the military applications we’ve done so far.”

Some of the products Wilwood supplies to the military are different from the ones sold to the aftermarket, while others are direct aftermarket products sold for military applications. All of it is propriety product, and some evolve on the basis of a military application.

“Some are slight homologations of what we currently provide to the aftermarket, and some are direct, currently supplied aftermarket products that bolt right on to military applications,” Spandrio said. “But in the end, the two are essentially the same. That’s an advantage for military supply because it bypasses a lot of the International Trade and Arms requirements. If they can get supplied to them what they need to meet their performance, durability and pricing targets without having to reinvent anything, it saves a lot of effort and logistics.”

At MasterCraft Safety, the mounting positions on the seats themselves are the only difference between those sold to the military versus the commercial market, while many of Roush Yates’ parts, including springs and shocks, are custom parts built for specific units. Other parts, including switches and hoses, are common parts.

Purchasing Patterns

FOX Defense Suspension
FOX Defense Suspension sells a range of passive dampers, high-performance position-sensitive coilovers and air-spring shock absorbers to the military.
There is no real pattern when it comes to order volumes. Customers vary by manufacturer, ranging from the U.S. government to OEMs to the military units themselves. Most seem to purchase according to their needs. With both large- and small-volume orders, Wilwood sells directly to the U.S. government, military bases, various depots and final-tier vehicle manufacturers.

“We’re working with all the major defense contractors,” Spandrio said. “We have forecasts that go out six months—some even further—and it’s a consistent product supply. If they’re buying commercial, off-the-shelf stuff, they have an advantage because of economies of scale, which include pricing and delivery, because we’re producing it for other customers
as well.”

Wilwood’s military programs require confidentiality and non-disclosure, which is at the forefront of any new endeavor. “If they have spec’d our product, sometimes we’re not even sure of the exact application,” Spandrio said. “We encourage them to involve us so when troubleshooting managers come into play or they need some level of field support, we’re able to understand their application a little better.”

Source Box:
FOX Racing Shox
ICON Vehicle Dynamics
MasterCraft Safety
Oshkosh Defense
Rhino Linings Corp.
Roush Yates Performance Products
Wilwood Engineering
MasterCraft Safety sells its commercial off-the-shelf products directly to OEMs, the Defense Logistics Agency and also military units. Ross said that there is a great deal of volume involved initially. And because all MasterCraft Safety seats have been developed in-house, no U.S. government dollars are involved in product R&D, testing or tooling, which means the army can purchase MasterCraft’s commercial part number.

The military purchases from Roush Yates in minimal quantities based on usage. “It’s not a gravy train; you’ve got to work for their business,” Gregory said. “The military is starting to realize that a lot of companies they do business with charge them more than our market would support, so they’re finding out that if they come back to independent companies like us, we can do a couple of things for them. For one, we have experience with many of the products they want to use, so we can save them time and money by offering solutions to their problems.”

In other cases, volumes can be quite substantial. The OEMs buy truckload quantities from Rhino on a weekly or biweekly basis, according to LoPresto. The Battle Jacket is not a closely guarded product compared to the armament material, but there are restrictions on where it can be sold (only to friendly nations, for instance).

Military Buyers at the Show

In addition to attending military shows, military buyers, engineers and organizations, such as the Association of the United States Army, have been attending the SEMA Show in recent years in search of the latest aftermarket products, curious to learn how they can be integrated into a military applications. In 2010, there were more than 50 military personnel in attendance.

Speaking about FOX Shox, Godfrey said, “Contacts made at SEMA have supported our military business efforts.”

ICON also exhibits at the SEMA Show and has been approached by military buyers. As the company’s product image gains more exposure, Johnson expects to gain more business this year.

Roush Yates also reports a substantial military presence at the SEMA Show. “They’re looking for resources—new products that would fit into their market that come from our industry,” Gregory said.

Heightened Sense of Pride

Most aftermarket professionals agree that supplying the U.S. armed forces is a rewarding experience on a personal level, since their products are designed to save the lives of the men and women who are fighting to defend our country and freedom.

In FOX’s case, selling products that improve the off-road mobility of military vehicles enhances the survivability of young men and women who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. “If we can keep just one more person alive than would otherwise be the case, our efforts are worth it,” Godfrey said.

Roush Yates and many of its business partners provide safety to the troops in the field. “It’s anything from making sure the vehicle has enough power and electricity to support communications to having seats and restraint systems that protect them,” Gregory said. “We’re helping to protect the people who are protecting us.”

Military Buyers at the SEMA Show: In Their Own Words

Rhino Linings’ Battle Jacket
Rhino Linings’ Battle Jacket is designed to prevent or minimize fuel leakage on fuel tankers due to small arms fire.
You probably wouldn’t know it just by surveying the SEMA Show floor, but military buyers dressed in civilian clothing regularly attend the Show.

In 2010, U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant Abelardo Zavala attended the SEMA Show for his fifth time. He was looking for new and innovative tools and test equipment that could benefit his unit.

“I go to the Show and collect literature and bring it back to my units to determine how we can use a certain product,” Zavala said. “The SEMA Show is a great forum to see what’s out there.”

Jesse Burkhart of Navy Special Warfare Group ONE (NSWGO), located in Imperial Beach, California, has attended the SEMA Show for the past four years. He searches for any new tools on the market that can be used in the field, such as for 4WD, off-road and utility vehicles. He said that NSWGO is different from the mainstream military, and the aftermarket fits its niche because the unit uses more specialized equipment to fulfill its needs than a regular unit would use.

When shopping for a product, Burkhart wants someone who speaks the same language as he does as far as going off-road and knowing the conditions in which his unit operates. If he finds a company that meets his needs and it’s the only one that can, he sole-sources through that company. Otherwise, he bids on contracts.

“We found some new air-compressor jacks from Rack Jack at the SEMA Show that are more portable than a floor jack,” Burkhart said. “We don’t attend any other trade shows because we figure that everything we need to see is at the SEMA Show; it’s one-stop shopping. When we go, we get a lot of good ideas of what’s available by talking to guys in the industry.”