Defense contractors put products online Companies making manuals, parts lists available on Internet

August 23, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

It's not enough anymore to build a gizmo the size of a fruit cart that can suck the fuel out of a captured enemy jet and pump it into a fully armed F-15 with engines running.

Last week, the Air Force asked Baltimore's Tate Engineering Systems Inc. to take its product a step further, by designing a home page on the Internet that explains how it works.

Once the page is up and running, a soldier in Bosnia could whip out a laptop, uplink to the Internet and access the home page for help in making repairs or ordering parts.

The military is more wired than ever, and analysts say Tate's contract is one of the first ventures into a cyber realm that could become a familiar place for defense contractors.

"I think it's going to be just the beginning, especially if it's accepted and works well in this particular instance," said Ken Herbert, a defense and aerospace specialist at Frost & Sullivan in San Francisco. "I'm very confident that for all sorts of work with the Department of Defense, contractors are going to be asked to do a greater portion of it online."

Being among the first has left Tate scrambling to fill the order, with one computer specialist and a communications director working to establish the site in the next eight or nine weeks.

Company President Gordon Johnson relishes the thought that his relatively small outfit -- 156 employees in a 70,000-square-foot facility downtown -- is heading into territory unexplored by some of the biggest defense companies in the land.

"For guys like us, you know, we think we've discovered America," Johnson said.

Or at least a great new way to drum up business.

As Johnson points out, the Internet home page will offer supply officers an instant way to order parts or more equipment.

The page's complete set of design drawings and parts specifications will be updated continually, so anyone who accesses it will view fresher information than can be given in a printed manual.

Paper manuals are not likely to disappear soon, but analyst Herbert said the technology to use the Internet is increasingly common at all levels of the military.

The refueling carts themselves are an innovation. Originally developed by the company for the Saudi Arabian military, which needed a way to pump fuel in remote desert locations, the carts caught the attention of the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf war, Johnson said. Now Tate is operating under a joint, $4.3 million contract from the Navy and the Air Force to supply what it calls STARCARTs to troops worldwide.

The Air Force versions include some modifications that make them the jet-refueling equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, said Tate general manager Greg Ayers. They can siphon fuel from almost any type of captured aircraft or gas field, and they can pump to a variety of crafts. Consisting mainly of a diesel pump, a giant fuel filter, a control mechanism and a hose reel, the carts can be towed behind Humvees or tanker trucks.

Tate Engineering is an employee-owned subsidiary of Tate Industries, which is headquartered in Baltimore and has offices in Canada, England, Singapore, Texas, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

With sales last year of just under $30 million, Tate Engineering handles mostly non-military contracts. It assembles or distributes boilers, filters, compressors, pumps and a variety of petroleum-handling equipment.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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