At a time when defense contractors are repositioning themselves for a future that won't be flush with government expenditures, a local manufacturer is counting the U.S. Army among its best repeat customers.
In 1988, the Army entered a three-year contract to buy more than 25,000 two-way radios that Bendix/King Radio manufactured at its Lawrence facility. The AN/PRC-127 radios proved themselves in the field during the Operation Desert Storm and now the Army wants more.
Steve Nichols, general manager of the company's Mobile Communications Divison, which has its headquarters at the local plant, said the Army has exercised the fourth-year option on the contract. The sales from that contract extension are expected to total $8.525 million, he said.
Nichols speculated that the hand-held radio was popular with the Army because of its versatility.
"It is used for all types of support work transportation of goods, security traffic, crowd management, convoy control, engineering operations," he said.
BENDIX/KING bid on the original contract using a radio that was one of the mainstay products manufactured in Lawrence.
The company made certain modifications, such as extending the antenna to allow communication over varied terrain, changing the frequency band to suit Army use and giving the radio a harder, tighter case impervious to sand and water.
"You could drive a Jeep over it," Nichols said.
Despite such modifications, the radio isn't a custom-designed product, a fact that keeps the cost down, he said. "A big trend in the Department of Defense, with their tighter budgets, is to try to buy more off-the-shelf items."
When the United States deployed troops to the Persian Gulf, the local plant was able to fill emergency orders for more radios under the original contract. To meet the demand, Nichols said the Lawrence plant had to increase its production to the plant's maximum capacity.
AND THE RADIOS apparently performed to the Army's satisfication during Desert Storm.
"We did get some real good feedback from people who said they used them, they liked them and they worked," Nichols said.
For its efforts in filling the rush orders, Bendix/King even received a certificate of appreciation from the Army's 22nd Support Command, which was involved in the Kurdish refugee operation.
The Army's decision to order additional radios isn't out of sync with the move toward more austere Defense Department budgets in the post-Cold War era, Nichols said.
"I think in any organization that's downsizing, whether it be a business or the military, two-way communication will help you get there," he said. "With these radios they can operate with a reduced force and still be more efficient."
SALES TO the Army are just one component in the business the Mobile Communications Division does with government, which is the division's largest market.
One of the company's best customers for the AN/PRC-127 is the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service, which initially signed a five-year contract with Bendix/King, now is doing business with the company under a three-year extension to that agreement.
The company also is a General Services Administration contractor, which means that some Bendix/King products have been approved for purchase by federal agencies without the need for competing bids.
In fact, Nichols said, the company's track record with the Forest Service undoubtedly helped it land the original Army contract.
"We had a known radio that was in the field already with the forest service," he said.
BUT NOT ALL of Bendix/King's government customers for its radios are federal agencies. Nichols noted that the Mobile Communications Division also supplies radios on state and local contracts. For example, among its customers are several police forces including one in Turkey and another in Australia.
"We do have an international component, too," Nichols said.
Nichols emphasized that the local plant isn't the source just of Mobile Communication Division products. He said production at the plant, which currently employs about 470 people, is about evenly divided between mobile communications and the avionics products manufactured by a separate division.
The avionics product line includes a flight management system for airplane navigation, as well as components for collision avoidance and autopilot systems.