Air Force laboratory puts cost estimating on ICE

Air Force laboratory puts cost estimating on ICE

Financial gains are uncertain, but service is using analysis and planning system more frequently

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

When trying to balance performance and cost issues for new technology projects, Air Force Research Laboratory scientists found they needed to improve the cost side of the equation.

To that end, the lab's staff began a search for tools to improve cost estimates. The hunt led the lab to the Integrated Desktop Analysis and Planning System Cost Estimation Tool. Known as ICE, the package was developed by Frontier Technology Inc. of Goleta, Calif., under a Defense Department grant program.

The lab began using ICE two years ago and continues to test the cost estimation toolkit. Since researchers first began employing ICE, the software has gained acceptance, said Timothy Dues, associate director for manufacturing technology and affordability at the lab.'Dues added that although the cost benefits of ICE have not been determined, use of the software has increased at the lab, whose headquarters is at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

ICE's System Work Breakdown Wizard helps users identify individual project components and their associated costs.

In the mid-1990s, the lab began training its scientists and engineers to weigh technology costs as well as performance when planning a project.

Money's no object

'In the past, we had been focusing mostly on performance, and to me that was a Cold War mentality,' Dues said. 'We had a threat and we needed performance, and it was performance at whatever cost.'

The training focused on examining alternatives and weighing the costs. Early in the effort, however, lab officials found that they did not have good cost estimation techniques for technology, Dues said. Researchers knew how to estimate the total cost of a large system, such as an entire aircraft, but had a lot more difficulty judging the cost of an electronic subsystem, such as a jet's avionics.

Researchers were still making some cost estimates by poring through handbooks and working with paper and calculators, Dues said. They also used parametric simulations that were developed as far back as 20 years ago.

The older methods were so crude that their accuracy was frequently challenged, Dues said.

Frontier's intent in developing ICE was to integrate past experience and existing cost models into a single package for desktop computers, said Ron Shroder, director of Frontier's office in Dayton, Ohio. The company consulted with engineers and specialists in both program and financial management so that ICE would be consistent with existing cost estimating strategies.

Frontier developed ICE with a grant from DOD's Small-Business Innovative Research Program, Shroder said. The program helps companies'most of which have provided DOD with services'to create products for a wider audience.

ICE is an integrated suite of tools for 32-bit versions of Microsoft Windows, including Windows 2000, Shroder said.

ICE features several wizards that prompt users to describe aspects of a project that may influence its budget. Some examples, Shroder said, are the types of hardware, the existence of legacy software and the need to use commercial or military development standards.

The software consolidates data already stored in databases and other software models, Shroder said. Information sources include the service's own Air Force Total Ownership Cost model; the SEER suite of tools from Galorath Inc. of El Segundo, Calif.; and the Price tool suite from Price Systems LLC of Mount Laurel, N.J.

After ICE crunches the data and displays the results, Shroder said, the tool lets users perform what he called sensitivity analyses. Basically, users can tweak the parameters to assess their potential impact on the overall cost.

ICE includes several options for formatting the output into graphs and charts, Shroder said. It can export graphics to any Microsoft Office program.

Although the typical ICE user runs the software on a desktop computer, it can be installed for enterprise use on a LAN, Shroder said. Frontier is also in the process of porting the tool suite to the Web.

Although Shroder would not disclose how much the lab has paid for its ICE licenses, he said the suite costs $3,000 to $6,000 per seat, depending on volume.

ICE is 'one of the most promising tools' of several the lab has been studying over the past two years, Dues said.

Researchers in four lab directorates have tried ICE on several projects that are now in the middle of their three- to four-year life spans, Dues said.

These projects include designing im-proved windshields for fighter jets and developing infrared-sensor countermeasures, propulsion technologies and materials structures.

Dues said the lab would employ ICE at more of its 10 directorates while continuing to evaluate the software's accuracy and user-friendliness.

Dues said he does not have a head count of ICE users, but 400 to 600 researchers have received training, and many of them have used the software.

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