Army leads nation in push to digital manufacturing
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 8, 2013) -- The President Barack Obama administration has chosen the U.S. Army to launch an institute with the goal of spurring innovation in digital manufacturing, officials announced recently.
The Army is enlisting its Manufacturing Technology Program, commonly known as ManTech, to lead the establishment of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, or DMDI, said Andy Davis, ManTech program manager within the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, or RDECOM.
"This is an RDECOM-led effort," Davis said. "This is an opportunity for the command to drive this area forward."
RDECOM manages ManTech on behalf of the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, which has overall responsibility for the Army's program.
Greg Harris, Ph.D., with RDECOM's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., is the DMDI Institute program manager for Army. He is leading the effort, with participation from the Air Force, Navy and nine other federal government agencies.
The DMDI Institute issued a request for information June 6, to solicit ideas and feedback on the direction for the institute from private industry and academia, Harris said. The DMDI Institute's Proposers' Day is scheduled for July 10.
"How do we develop the capabilities and networks necessary to provide advanced manufacturing capability and not just incrementally change the United States' capability to compete in the manufacturing arena?" Harris said. "We're going to make significant change in the way in which the commercial and organic industrial bases manufacture parts and systems for us."
The Department of Defense has provided $50 million in funding, the other federal agencies contributed $20 million, and the institute expects a commensurate cost match from industry. Harris said the government is scheduled to award DMDI Institute's cooperative agreements by the end of 2013.
Davis and Harris said the institute will further the Army's efforts to shift its approach to manufacturing. The Army is starting to provide manufacturers with the specifications for a part in three-dimensional computer-aided design, or CAD, files instead of the traditional two-dimensional technical data packages.
"The Army sees this is an opportunity to align a major national effort with what's going on with engineered resilient systems," Davis said. "We are bringing requirements, modeling and simulation in early in the design process. Build prototypes, capture that data, and run it back through your process to make sure you have something good before you start really building your system."
Because the manufacturing community works with 3D data, there are added costs when vendors must take the Army's 2D TDP and convert it to a 3D CAD package.
The M2 .50-caliber machine gun is an example of the difficulty the Army faced when trying to have a vendor manufacture replacements parts derived from 2D drawings, Davis said.
When the Army tried to convert the M2's 2D drawings into digital format, it was not possible because the machine tools and manufacturing processes had changed significantly in the past 70 years. The Army could no longer get parts made based on the old drawings.
To overcome the issue, Army engineers leveraged the Defense-Wide Manufacturing Science and Technology Program to reverse-engineer the part based on the drawings and existing parts. CAD files could then be sent to manufacturers for production.
Harris said the institute will lay the groundwork to help the Army as it adopts digital manufacturing. One of the primary goals is to help ease the transition process as the Army tries to understand how to use these new data and models.
"That's the gap this institute is going to fill," Harris explained. "In all of the efforts we have going on, how do we utilize these different models that are coming in? How do we deal with capability issues so we can utilize this data, re-use it as much as possible and not end up having to re-design parts that we already have?"
The transition to digital manufacturing will ultimately save time and money for the Army as it designs, engineers and procures new systems and makes modifications to existing ones.
"We'll do virtual prototyping so that we're not building parts to see if they work," Harris said. "We can do a lot of that before we ever cut a piece of metal. That significantly reduces the overall lead time for design and fielding of a system. It allows us to be smarter about the way we go about the realization of that system."
New systems will be the first to adopt the new standards, and the next adopters would be legacy systems as they require upgrades, Davis said. Program Manager Ground Combat Vehicle is one of the first major programs to adopt the capability for the new vehicle.
Davis said the focus area of DMDI Institute reaffirms the work being done by the Army ManTech Program.
"Having this topic area as a major institute absolutely validates the work we've already been doing," Davis said. "We're leading this on behalf of the nation. As RDECOM leads this effort, it's an opportunity to keep moving in that direction."
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC delivers it.