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Tent manufacturers strategize for success in military market

Advanced Textiles, Markets, Tents | October 1, 2008 | By:

COTS tent manufacturers find a niche, exceed specs and produce high-performance shelters efficiently.

On any given day, the U.S. military may conduct actions in sweltering heat, bitter cold or high winds. To shelter troops and equipment in such varying conditions, military units frequently turn to Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) tents. This practice is becoming more common due to the high performance features of modern commercial shelters and the manufacturers’ speed and agility in responding to changing military needs.

Commercial off-the-shelf tents are available for purchase on the open market. However, many COTS designers and manufacturers cater their shelters for military use, following military specifications for field shelters. Ted Anderson, president of fabric supplier BondCote, Pulaski, Va., describes COTS as products that have a design owned and controlled by the manufacturer, as opposed to the government.

“When the military started issuing performance specifications for its shelters, that really opened the door for COTS,” Anderson says. “It allowed manufacturers to try and make a better shelter.”

Catherine Roy of Base-X Inc., Fairfield, Va., describes COTS as any product the company has developed, manufactured and put into the marketplace to solve a particular challenge. Base-X manufactures the Base-X® Shelter Systems for military, homeland and industrial field operations.

DHS Systems LLC, in Orangeburg, N.Y., produces the Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter, or DRASH. “[DRASH] is, in the truest sense of the terms, a military specifications tent, in what I think is a newer definition of a military specifications tent,” says Ron Houle, director of federal programs for DHS. “Furthermore, this specification is really more performance driven— what wind and snow loads it must withstand, how durable it should be, measured by setup/takedown cycles, etc.—versus strictly how wide or long it should be. The tents the military are buying from us have been tested at Aberdeen and meet all these military specifications.”

Houle points out that COTS shelters aren’t simply military or commercial products, because some commercially made shelters are designed with only the military in mind. And they come in all shapes and sizes.

“You can go from our small C Shelter, which can be used as a squad tent or small command post—all the way up to our J system, which is 1,100 square feet, with a 12-foot ceiling, and is used in multiple applications such as a Brigade Command Center, medical facility, maintenance facility or life support facility,” he says.

COTS tents benefit manufacturers

What makes COTS tents a good option? Commercial manufacturers are set up to work directly with each market segment customer base, Roy explains. This makes them efficient in product development.

“The military is generous also to oftentimes allow roundtable discussion groups to meet a particular challenge they identify,” she says. “Manufacturers then take this information back and apply it to the product development process, enabling them to then respond to projects put out at a later date.”

Because manufacturers own and control the design and production of each tent, they can respond directly to the feedback of the end users, exploit niches and adopt new technology faster than the military production process.

“COTS [manufacturers] are much more focused on servicing specific military needs, and are faster because they control and own the design, market it and technically support their product,” Anderson says. “Everything is contained within the company.”

One tent manufacturer with a natural niche is Fairbanks, Alaska-based Alaska Tent & Tarp. The company’s Arctic Oven shelter is designed to keep occupants warm and dry in extremely cold temperatures and harsh environments.

“You need to have a unique product that fits an unmet need in the military,” says Alaska Tent & Tarp president Jim Haselberger. “For example, we have developed a cold weather tent that is built to perform at 40 F or 50 F below zero and keep soldiers dry and warm.”

In the nonmilitary realm, the tents are used by Alaska guides and outfitters and are also in use in Antarctica and Greenland.

“It is [made of] fire-resistant, breathable fabric with a high vapor moisture transmission rate,” Haselberger says. “The problem with cold weather tents is condensation on the inside of the tent, and that’s because of temperature differentials. Either it’s going to rain on you in the tent or snow on you due to condensation. Because of our high vapor transmission rate, the moisture escapes through our fabric, allowing it and the shelter’s occupants to stay dry.”

Houle says the design advantage of the DRASH system is in how quickly it can be put up and taken down. “[We believe] you can put up and take down a DRASH tent faster than any other tent out there,” he says. “It doesn’t have the traditional poles and pins and piece parts. It is a design that doesn’t require any special tools. It is fully assembled—you just take it up and put it down.”

Procuring the contracts

After you’ve found your niche, how do you go about marketing your shelter to the right military personnel? Roy says for Base-X, taking a grassroots approach worked well to generate exposure, which led to getting military contracts.

“We had salespeople with a shelter in the back of a pickup, showing it to military officials, educating people on what we have to offer, saying, ‘We have built a better mousetrap here, come see why,’” she says. “It is important to us that our potential customers can see and try our product in a real-life setting. We go to shows, join associations such as state level National Guard units as well as other military and homeland organizations. We try to get our tents out as much as possible to let people see, touch and feel the quality of our product.”

Base-X also hires a significant number of former members of the military who have used the products.

“[Our former military employees] can relate back to the customer base that we want to market to,” says Roy.

Alaska Tent & Tarp demonstrates the Arctic Oven at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Test Center at Fort Greely in Alaska and has given tents to a mountain warfare training center in Vermont.

“It’s also word of mouth from soldiers,” Haselberger says. “A lot of people from the military will go out hunting or camping in other parts of the country and wish they had the tents we provide for them here, and they tell people about them.”

What may be most crucial for landing those military contracts is finding the specific opportunities for improving the military’s existing family of shelters. “If you’re a COTS producer, you have to design your shelter, and the design would have to meet or exceed the military specifications for performance requirements,” Anderson says. “It takes more for a COTS shelter to get a contract—it has to be better.”

Jake Kulju is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I.

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