Operation homegrown

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Designed and engineered from the ground up by Polaris Defense, the ultralight MRZR tactical warfighter can be configured a number of ways, including two- and four-person variants.

Soldier safety a primary goal for Midwest manufacturer building extreme off-road vehicles

January 2016 - Founding father Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The cement of this union is in the heart-blood of every American.” The bond at Polaris Defense is in the heart-blood of its workforce—a regiment of men and women who work tirelessly to put mission-critical assets into the hands of America’s armed forces and allies. The company designs, engineers and fabricates militarized mobile, air transportable, ultralight tactical vehicles with a near-maniacal attention to quality down to the last detail.

“We consider our workforce a competitive advantage, a secret weapon if you will,” says Richard Haddad, general manager for the Medina, Minnesota-based manufacturer. 

Polaris Defense is also backed by the infrastructure and resources of its parent company Polaris Industries Inc. The company has led the commercial powersports industry for more than six decades. The OEM has engineering, manufacturing and distribution facilities in Roseau and Wyoming, Minnesota; Osceola, Wisconsin; Spirit Lake, Iowa; and Vermillion, South Dakota.

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The MV850 features TerrainArmor non pneumatic tires.

“It’s a huge advantage for us to be able to leverage Polaris Industries’ commercial off-the-shelf technology, extensive off-road fabrication experience and engineering know-how,” says Haddad. 

“There are 600 engineers at the Wyoming facility,” he continues. “Collectively their development experience is the core of how and what makes our product line possible.”

Polaris Industries’ reputation for off-road vehicles initially attracted the attention of military customers during the 1980s. It soon became established as the first ATV OEM to produce militarized vehicles for Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the United States Army. 

Day of terror

“Our history here at Polaris Defense began on Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. was attacked,” says Program Manager Mike Bedard.

“When [U.S.] troops deployed to Afghanistan they quickly realized large military vehicles were unsuitable for the terrain,” explains Haddad. The country’s landscape features a mixture of rugged mountains, semi-arid plains, poor roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, soil degradation and deforestation. “That’s when the military reached out to us,” he says.

The subsequent success of Polaris vehicles in theater prompted the formal creation of Polaris Defense in 2005.

“We jumped at the opportunity to grow this business segment,” says Haddad, who served 24 years with the Marines. “Many of our employees are veterans or have a son or daughter who is deployed. The consensus was we are doing the right thing supporting our soldiers.”

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Randy Burrell at the Roseau facility welds suspension brackets for the MRZR.

A series of light, off-road vehicles was developed for U.S. and coalition forces based on Polaris Industries’ COTS platforms. In 2011 Polaris Defense designed and engineered the next generation of the MV850 ATV and the MRZR LT-ATV for U.S. and international special operations, expeditionary and light infantry forces. The MRZR platform comes in two-seat and four-seat configurations and is equipped with features that include a collapsible roll bar, keyless ignition and a modular cargo bed. The vehicle can operate in blackout mode and has an infrared option. It can be transported inside a Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, Boeing MH-47 special operations helicopter and Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low and be air dropped.

Polaris Defense introduced the DAGOR ultralight combat vehicle at the 2014 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The DAGOR is the first vehicle Polaris Defense designed and built specifically for military use from the ground up.

“We identified a gap in the light mobility portfolio that military forces around the world had,” says Haddad. “That gap was somewhere between our MRZR and a Humvee. We launched the series 26 months after concept. It can be sling loaded under a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and has 3,250 lbs. of payload. That’s payload at 100 percent of off-road capability; not payload sitting in the parking lot. It’s payload for extreme terrain. The DAGOR’s modular design can accommodate up to nine infantry soldiers.”

Fabricating the MRZR, DAGOR and MV850 is more labor intensive than that of its commercial cousins, but Polaris Defense keeps its cost structure low by “borrowing a number of common practices from the COTS platform,” explains Haddad. “We leverage high-volume commercial production, quality systems and proven processes. That makes us cost effective and [allows for] rapid deployment. Control over our supply chain also permits us to use off-the-shelf components that are easy to procure, making it possible for soldiers to perform Level One maintenance in the field.”

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Dean Robinson at the Roseau facility forms suspension brackets for the MRZR.

Understanding the ride

Designs for the tactical vehicles can start on a napkin but are quickly translated to CAD and subjected to Finite Analysis (FEA) strain gauges and other data acquisition tools. In the last five years alone Polaris Industries has logged cycles of learning with more than 1 million off-road vehicles.

The company has an “extensive and accurate library of load cases that we feed into these tools to determine the best use of materials, including high-strength steels,” says Senior Platform Engineer Dick Maki.

Feedback is gathered from the military customer throughout the design, which is an iterative process, says Maki. “It means we design, test, redesign and test again, repeating these procedures until we’ve exceeded all requirements.”

The Polaris creed — understand the riding experience; live the riding experience; work to make it better — points to another critical element in the manufacturer’s radical approach. “We’re constantly riding and working to improve the ride and that can’t be done on a computer or paper alone,” says Bedard. “We have multiple build phases, the last of which is a production build.”

This stage begins with a master CAD model, used to generate the bill of material. Engineering then prepares a drawing of each component. The MRZR requires 900 unique parts made up of more than 2,800 pieces. Many are fabricated in-house such as formed tubing, painted parts, weldments and subassemblies. Other parts are sourced and shipped to the plant just in time.

A wide range of metals are used, among them HSS and aircraft-grade aluminum. Eighty percent of the MRZR is fabricated at Roseau before it’s shipped to Osceola to be fitted with military-specific components. The DAGOR is designed, developed and prototyped in Wyoming and built at vehicle manufacturing partner Roush Industries in Detroit. DAGOR contains 530 parts assembled from more than 1,400 pieces.

“Our manufacturing flow is well orchestrated,” Bedard says. “We handle a lot of subcomponents from sheet metal to die castings, rubber and plastics that are welded, machined, stamped and injection molded. Sheet metal and tubes are laser cut. Many of these components come into our plant at the same time and are then transferred directly to their designated locations on the assembly line. The flow of materials fed to the operators on the line is constant.”

Many of the unique parts specified for both the MRZR and the DAGOR require Polaris Defense to invest in a range of tooling from castings to injection molded components.

Early testing and quality checks for the MRZR are conducted at Roseau and Osceola. Following final fit-up, vehicles may also undergo a series of test profiles at Nevada Automotive Test Center in Carson City.

“The test center offers the worst available terrain for analysis and evaluation,” says Haddad. “Our military customers specify the types of testing required and the number of hours needed for each trial.”

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Logan Berg tightens lug nuts on an MRZR 2 on the final assembly line in Roseau.

Making it count

For Polaris Defense employees, quality means more than just test drives, parts inspection and meeting tolerance, material, finish and performance requirements. Justin Thompson, son of Scott Thompson, an upfitter at the Osceola plant, returned safely from his deployment in 2014 and remains an active National Guard member. “Building these vehicles still means the same to me as it did before. Everything has to be right before it leaves, otherwise it just cannot leave,” Scott Thompson says.

“We understand that ours are sometimes the last hands to touch these vehicles before they are shipped directly into theater,” adds Bedard.

Perhaps the best testament to the manufacturer’s progressive technology developments, metalworking craftsmanship and continuous process improvements is that of military service members. “Soldiers from a special forces command driving our ATVs wrote to tell us that the mobility we provide allows them to get out of harm’s way and avoid IEDs,” says Haddad. “They told us that our vehicles saved their lives.”

New contract

SOCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, has been using the MRZR for several years. Last August SOCOM awarded Polaris Defense a new sole-source, five-year contract for continuing delivery order options on the MRZR 2 and MRZR 4. The contract is valued at up to $83 million.

The Marine Corps is also evaluating the ultralight vehicles for its mission profiles. Polaris Defense vehicles are deployed in more than 20 countries with demand escalating among U.S. and allied forces.

In the face of growth and product development, employees are willing to continue putting in long hours to get the job done. Senior Manufacturing Engineer Kevin McCormick credits the dedication of Polaris Defense personnel in part to “that good, old-fashioned Midwest work ethic.”

Production Supervisor Tom Oestreich says, “Knowing that someone’s life may depend on our vehicles working properly adds a dimension of responsibility that can be felt by every team member. Each of us has a deep sense of pride in building our military products. We push ourselves to be letter perfect because these vehicles have to run, have to survive, and have to support field operators wherever they go.” FFJ



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