Pentagon Playing Key Role in Reshaping U.S. Industrial Future
Photo: MarinesThe revival of U.S. manufacturing was a dominant theme of the 2016 presidential election. As the jobs rhetoric has grown louder, federal agencies led by the Defense Department have been quietly laying the foundation for a high-tech manufacturing surge.
The Pentagon, notably, has been assembling a large network of government, private-sector and academic players in a bid to secure access to critical technologies the military needs, while also trying to motivate corporations to invest in advanced manufacturing research.
The Defense Department last week announced it awarded a contract to American Robotics Inc., based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to manage the “Advanced Robotics Manufacturing,” or ARM Institute, the eighth DoD-led hub that becomes the 14th member of the “Manufacturing USA” network.
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.
American Robotics — a consortium of state and local governments, industry, universities, community colleges and non-profit organizations from across the country — contributed $173 million to the ARM Institute. That will be combined with $80 million in federal funding.
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.
The ARM Institute will “organize the current fragmented domestic capabilities in manufacturing robotics technology and better position the United States, relative to global competition,” said a Pentagon news release.
The goal is to promote a democratization of sorts in the industry so manufacturing robots becomes less expensive and more accessible even to small businesses. “The use of robotics is already present in manufacturing environments, but today's robots are typically expensive, singularly purposed, challenging to reprogram, and require isolation from humans for safety.” Robotic systems are viewed as essential to “achieve the level of precision required for defense and other industrial manufacturing needs, but the capital cost and complexity of use often limits small to mid-size manufacturers from utilizing the technology.”
The Pentagon for years 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 by integrating the diverse collection of industry practices and institutional knowledge across many disciplines — 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, when Congress authorized it in the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2014. The program was previously known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The legislation was passed with bipartisan cooperation and has drawn praise from politicians for supporting small and mid-sized manufacturers, and for creating venues to train the next generation of manufacturing workers.
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 last week, 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. “By breaking down market barriers in the right technological areas, the program facilitates the acceleration of U.S. manufacturing R&D.” The institutes also focus on ensuring that there are enough workers with the right skills to meet the needs of advanced manufacturers.
The study compliments 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. At the Power America advanced electronics institute in North Carolina, a member company called AgileSwitch applied a newly patented switching technique for use in high-power silicon carbide applications. The technology has applications in solar and wind turbine energy, and electric vehicles.
The Defense Department believes it has a huge stake in the success of these ventures 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 minidrones 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. Buzzwords like “distributed, persistent sensor networks” have been used to describe that vision.
Deloitte warns that Manufacturing USA should increase collaboration with the Pentagon’s own labs and avoid overlapping efforts. “Manufacturing USA was designed, in part, to complement the national labs and propel their work through the manufacturing innovation process,” the study said. “In practice, however, by focusing institute efforts on technology development, the program risks creating non-strategic overlap with these peer entities.”