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Innovating to win: Turning ideas into on-the-job solutions

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Monica Ricci
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command

Whether it’s something as simple as trading in pen and paper for tablets or as sophisticated as automating the daily tanker refueling plan, every innovative practice here in the U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility started with someone’s good idea.

“I think we associate innovation and getting something new with being a difficult process,” said Capt. Laura Starling, AFCENT’s chief innovation officer. “A lot of times, it’s not as difficult as you think. The Air Force is taking some very intentional and well-planned steps to make it even easier.” 

It’s as easy as bringing ideas forward to someone like Starling, whose job it is to connect Airmen with the resources that could help bring them to life.
“Sometimes that involves equipment solutions, getting software that already exists that we’ve never used before,” Starling explained. “Sometimes it involves coming up with an entirely new solution and partnering with agencies we have at our disposal to accomplish that solution.”

The 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Desert Spark Lab at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, is just one indication of how Airmen’s ingenuity is currently leading to immediate improvements in the theater.

 In the 10 months the lab has been open, Starling said Airmen have saved the Air Force more than $1.5 million. Some examples include the 3-D printing of a plastic drainage pan to allow better water flow at the base’s wash rack, which was routinely out of service due to clogged pipe systems, and the printing of a piece of a fire truck that was no longer being manufactured.

Thinking innovatively, however, is not just about saving time or money.  It’s another way AFCENT postures itself to prevail tomorrow.

“I’m working with force protection and several other agencies across AFCENT and CENTCOM on an integrated base defense solution for the threats of tomorrow,” Starling said.  “So, for some of these ideas, it’s not just about saving time, it’s about being operationally effective--how do we best change the way we’ve looked at base defense to make sure that new threats can be defeated?”

The entire innovative process -- from idea to implementation -- requires keeping an open mind and accepting that everything is not going to be a success story.

“Feeling so strongly that change is bad is not how this AOR works,” Starling said. “It is important to realize that in order to keep pace with what is happening here and to remain flexible … you have young Airmen who are just waiting for you to say, ‘What’s the good idea? How do I fix this?’”

Airmen serving throughout the AFCENT AOR are encouraged to contact the innovation office for more information: