This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
The Pentagon has been assembling a large network of government, private-sector and academic technology experts in an attempt to secure access to critical technologies the military needs, while also trying to motivate corporations to invest in advanced manufacturing research.
According to the National Defense magazine, the U.S. Defense Department has recently announced it awarded a contract to American Robotics Inc., to manage the “Advanced Robotics Manufacturing,” (ARM) Institute. This represents a great example for the Pentagon’s efforts,
Defense officials and industry analysts have hailed this business model because it spreads the financial burdens across many players and puts both the government and the private sector in a position to win big, if projects end up developing successful products that can be commercialized. The goal of the ARM Institute is to take the technological development industry forward to an era where manufacturing robots become less expensive and more accessible even to small businesses.
The Pentagon is showing growing interest in these public-private partnerships at a time when it fears the U.S. military is seeing its technological edge slipping, and worries that private-sector innovations are moving far too rapidly for the government procurement bureaucracy to keep pace. During the last few years, Washington has made it known that low-cost, multifunctional autonomous systems are at the top of its wish list. The manufacturing hubs are one vehicle to make that vision a reality.
The ARM consortium is one of the largest, with 123 industry participants, 40 members from academia and 64 government and nonprofit partners. The group will be directed to create and then deploy robotic technology across sensor technologies, software and artificial intelligence, materials science, human and machine behavior modeling and quality assurance.
The Manufacturing USA network started out three years ago. Each Manufacturing USA institute focuses on a technology area, such as additive manufacturing, integrated photonics or smart sensors. The federal government has committed over $1 billion, matched by more than $2 billion in non-federal investment. The Pentagon noted that the hub in Youngstown, Ohio, attracted over $90 million in new manufacturing investments and is poised to train 14,000 workers in the fundamentals of 3D printing.
In a move aimed at building awareness and shoring up support for manufacturing consortiums, the Pentagon funded an independent study that looked at the overall performance of Manufacturing USA.
The study, conducted by the consulting firm Deloitte and released not long ago, reported that the first eight advanced manufacturing institutes were able to bring together 1,200 companies, universities and government agencies. The value of these massive networks is that they can help to “accelerate innovation,” the Deloitte study said. Over time, these centers would be the launch pads for the future technically trained manufacturing workforce and for a “sustainable national manufacturing research infrastructure.”
The first eight Manufacturing USA institutes were established by the Department of Defense or Department of Energy. There are early signs that the organizations are reaching “tipping points” where the benefits for both the government and the private sector are self-evident, the study said.
The private-sector members include influential U.S. companies such as Boeing, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin and Ford. The study found that the institutes have created “true public-private partnerships that are successfully uniting academia, industry and government across the country.”
Deloitte analysts noted that Manufacturing USA addresses the so-called “valley of death” between research and commercialization, a problem that has plagued defense technology for decades. The institutes also focus on ensuring that there are enough workers with the right skills to meet the needs of advanced manufacturers.
The study complements the program too for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses by providing access to expensive equipment, pooling project costs, creating technology roadmaps and promoting knowledge exchange.
One project at the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, in Chicago, linked researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology and several businesses that were seeking to commercialize wearable technologies.
The Defense Department believes it has a huge stake in the success of ventures like this as the Pentagon continues its pursuit of low-cost systems such as drones and surveillance sensors. One plan, for instance, is to deploy swarms of mini-drones to overwhelm enemy forces and weapon systems. That will require systems that cost a fraction of current products, so they can be deployed in large numbers and used as disposable gear.