Army Gains Ground in Digital Manufacturing Charge
Although digital manufacturing tools from CAD files to compute-intensive simulations have proven their worth throughout the industry, a significant barrier exists for many small-to-medium-sized businesses whose IT infrastructure and manufacturing equipment weren’t designed with big data in mind. But perhaps more surprisingly, even powerhouses like the U.S. military have lagged behind in this transition. However, with the help of President Obama’s commitment to a digital manufacturing institute, some help may be on the way.
President Obama announced the $200 million commitment for three advanced manufacturing innovation institutes this May, mapping out three institutes that would individually take on digital manufacturing, lightweight composites and next-generation power sources. Obama selected the Army to drive the effort, which is receiving $50 million in funding from the Department of Defense, an additional $20 million from other federal agencies, and is expecting a cost match from industry.
The army has recruited its Manufacturing Technology Program, or ManTech, to spearhead the establishment of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII). ManTech is managed by the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, also known as RDECOM, which acts on behalf of the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Research and Technology.
"This is an RDECOM-led effort," said Andy Davis, ManTech program manager within RDECOM. "This is an opportunity for the command to drive this area forward."
Greg Harris, who works with RDECOM’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., will be the DMDII program manager for Army. The Air Force, Navy and nine other federal government agencies will work with him to supplement the Army’s efforts.
The institute’s focus will be on developing software to help manufacturers bring a product from design and prototyping stages to production and testing stages. Specific attention will be given to high performance computing, big data analytics, intelligent machines and sensor technologies that will help manufacturers to make the most of their time and assets.
As you would expect, DMDII’s first goal is spur applied research and technology development through collaboration with industry, but outreach for K-16 students, workforce development, and technology commercialization assistance are among its other objectives.
"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."
Already, the Army is shifting away from the two-dimensional technical data packages that provide manufacturers for part specifications, and are transitioning into three-dimensional CAD files as a replacement. This should help to alleviate the added costs that are incurred when manufacturers have to convert the Army’s 2D TDP into a 3D CAD package.
Davis cited M2 .50-caliber machine guns as an example of the types of difficulties that this conversion process presents. He said that when the army tried to convert the M2’s 2D drawings, it just wasn’t possible because of the changes to manufacturing tools and processes that have occurred since its inception over 70 years ago.
Instead, Army engineers had to reverse engineer the design based on drawings and existing parts.
In the end, the DMDII’s efforts should help the Army as much as it helps the manufacturers that support it. Harris said that the institute will lay the groundwork to help the Army adopt digital manufacturing, particularly as it tries to understand new data and new 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?"
While the initial investment may be significant, the Army expects that over time this work will ultimately save money as well as time, particularly as they are able to adopt simulation and other rapid prototyping tools.
"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."
First on the Army’s list of targets is the adoption of new standards for new systems, followed by upgrades to legacy systems, Davis noted. Program Manager Ground Combat Vehicle is one of the first to see the fruits of the DMDII’s labor.