WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has announced plans to open a manufacturing institute focused on the creation of human tissue biofabrication, which will be the seventh defense-related manufacturing center under the Obama administration's Manufacturing USA program.
The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) will be based in Manchester, New Hampshire, with the mission to "organize the current fragmented domestic capabilities in tissue biofabrication technology and better position the U.S. relative to global competition," according to an announcement from the Pentagon.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top acquisition official who was on hand at a White House event to announce the decision to award ARMI with government funding, called keeping America's manufacturing edge ""fundamentally important to our national security."
As an example, Kendall told a story about how during the Cold War, Pentagon planners were concerned about the technological genius of Soviet engineers, but discovered after the war that the equipment suffered from inferior manufacturing techniques and materials. Making sure US industry continues to produce at a high quality is vital for American defense, he added.
Biofabrication is a catchall term for new innovations in the biotechnology world, including "biomaterial and cell processing, bioprinting, automation and non-destructive testing technologies for critical Department of Defense and novel commercial use." Among the early projects ARMI will focus on are "high-throughput culture technologies, 3D biofabrication technologies, bioreactors, storage methodologies, non-destructive evaluation, real-time monitoring/sensing, and detection technologies."
The Pentagon hopes ARMI research will eventually lead to new technologies that could be used to replace limbs or heal other injuries sustained by American forces in combat, Kendall said. He added that the ability to manufacture new organs could have a major impact on Americans facing long wait lists for transplants.
The federal government will kick in $80 million in funding, while the consortium of industry and non-industry partners will combine for an additional $214 million.
Among the ARMI consortium members are industry partners such as Abbott, Autodesk, Becton Dickinson, Celularity, DEKA Research & Development, GenCure, Humacyte, Lonza, Medtronic, Rockwell Automation, and United Therapeutics’, as well as academic partners such as Arizona State University, Boston University, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers, Stanford University, the University of Florida, the University of Minnesota, the University of New Hampshire, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Yale University.
Created in 2013, the Manufacturing USA initiative – technically known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation – is a network of private-public research centers of excellence spread around the country, with each center focused on a different technological area of study. With Wednesday’s announcement, there are twelve such centers, with the Pentagon taking the lead in seven of them.
The concept of the partnership ties back into the same ideas that have driven Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s innovation drive – that the commercial sector is driving the growth of technologies and that the government should take a role in helping to guide where that research goes in order to maintain America’s technological edge.
The ARMI announcement came as part of a White House celebration of the initiative, with several speakers expressing confidence the program would continue going forward. However, the future of Manufacturing USA under president-elect Donald Trump’s administration is unclear.
While Trump has spoken about the need to increase manufacturing domestically, his choice for budget director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, has questioned the needfor publicly-funded research and is expected to look for ways to cut the federal budget.Federal funding is vital for the Manufacturing USA strategy, and cuts could lead to the network collapsing in the future.
For now, the program continues pushing forward, with Kendall noting that he will be awarding an eighth, as of yet unnamed, defense-focused center for excellence before he leaves office at the end of the Obama administration.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.