WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is poised to launch two White House-backed manufacturing initiatives that officials hope will spur advanced capabilities to revolutionize weapon development and also have commercial applications.
In the end, DoD wants to “create centers of excellence in manufacturing around the country with loading docks that can provide the products that the military needs to perform future missions,” said Brett Lambert, deputy assistant secretary for manufacturing and industrial base policy.
“We believe this is so important to the department for what we need to do in U.S. manufacturing for our own goods and services that we have committed to do two [new projects] this year,” Lambert said in a Feb. 14 interview.
Here is how it works: DoD plans to stand up two institutes comprising top manufacturing companies and research universities. Using a mix of federal and private funding — at least a dollar-to-dollar match — these consortiums will stand up manufacturing plants that will focus on a certain type of technology. Federal officials are narrowing the areas of focus for each institution.
“My criteria in this area is … defense has to be catalyst for a market need,” Lambert said. “Once we are able to form these institutes, then DoD in essence becomes the customer, not the provider of funds.”
Possible DoD topic areas involve advanced electro-optics, lightweight composites, bio-manufacturing and intelligent manufacturing. In addition to the two DoD institutes, the Energy Department will stand up an institute as well.
“The idea is these are things that we need for the department, but also benefit the overall U.S. economy,” Lambert said. “That’s why we’re doing it in this collaborative environment with the rest of the U.S. government.”
Pentagon officials are reviewing a handful of topics with other government agencies, including NASA and the Energy Department, to make sure there is no duplication of effort. DoD expects to select its two topics within the next 30 days.
After that, the Pentagon will solicit bids, with contract awards likely in the fall, Lambert said.
“My criteria from DoD is that whatever we invest in has to have a loading dock,” Lambert said. “We’re building factories and we’re building the capability for industry and academia and the government to come together to solve common needs. Then at the end of the day, things come out of the factory that we can use.”
To date, one institute has already been funded using manufacturing dollars from different federal departments and agencies.
“Our challenge and our task [at DoD] has been to maximize and leverage the funds that are available across the department from different agencies, from different services, and combine those funds so we get much more bang for our buck,” Lambert said.
Also, the winning bidders, at minimum, have to match the amount of money the government puts toward the project. DoD plans to use this same practice in funding the two new initiatives.
“The goal is for these [institutes] to be self sustaining and allow us to become a customer,” he said.
Lambert said industry benefits from the intellectual property and capital that is developed in these institutes.
“Everyone has to bring something to the table,” he said. “Things that are developed and designed in these organizations are retained by the institute and licensed to participants of the institute.”
The institutions are also a way to keep the U.S. manufacturing workforce sharp during an era of decline in defense spending, according to Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council at the White House.
“They basically make the case that we can do things bigger together when you have several companies working with universities in a capacity where there is greater scale, and you are using a facility as essentially like a teaching hospital,” Sperling said during a Feb. 13 conference call with reporters. “So when there are developments in technology and research, you have a capacity to share them with smaller businesses, smaller manufacturers.”
The White House has created a $1 billion legislative proposal for 15 of these institutes.
“This sounds like an actual industrial policy, an actual emphasis on using advanced manufacturing and an emphasis on R&D,” said Steven Grundman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Pentagon industrial policy official.
Success in the Past
U.S. President Barack Obama announced the new DoD and Energy Department institutes in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, while touting the success of a DoD-backed institute in Youngstown, Ohio, that has made 3-D printing advancements over the past year.
“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” Obama said. “There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns.”
3-D printing, the ability to make virtually anything using a special printer, is considered revolutionary for manufacturing. For the military, it could mean a ship at sea not having to carry spare parts. Instead a 3-D printer could make parts needed for onboard repairs.
“It’s going to be huge for American industry writ large,” Lambert said.
Using $45 million in pooled funds from a number of federal agencies, DoD helped stand up the institute in Ohio last year.
“This is something that the Defense Department thinks is critical for them, but it obviously has broader applications for efficient, flexible manufacturing that could really be revolutionary,” Sperling said.
The Pentagon received 13 proposals for consortiums looking to get in on the 3-D printing initiative. Even though one was selected, companies and universities not selected have since joined the effort, Lambert said.
In all, more than 80 major companies and universities are participating in the Youngs-town project, Lambert said.
“This is the future,” he said. “We’re going to come up with two more of these in other areas that I think also will represent the future, not just for the department, but for U.S. manufacturing overall.”
The Obama administration wants to continue expanding the creation of these types of institutes.
“One of our hopes is that once more people see these and see them working and their success, that there will be more congressional demand to have more of them in different regions in the country,” Sperling said.