Wednesday, August 21, 2013

3-D Printing in DoD: Who's Dragging Their Feet?

I found this article, Why is the Pentagon Dragging Its Feet on 3D Printing, by way of Small Wars Journal. It has some interesting information. The Army is deploying mobile Fab Labs, which seems like a mini MIT FabLab in a shipping container. I think this is a really neat idea. How this can be characterized as feet dragging, I'm not sure. The feet dragging accusation is based on some hand-waving from an article on Disruptive Thinkers, and another article that seems to be worried that there is no Pentagon overlord in charge of an additive manufacturing strategy:
With possible dwindling budgets on the horizon, a clear strategy and cohesive approach is essential to create efficiencies in the area of research and development as well as eliminating duplicative efforts. In order for DoD to take advantage of what is anticipated to be an explosion in the commercial sector within the next ten years, the Department must take an active approach, partnering with the private sector to keep up with this relatively nascent technology and shaping/guiding it towards the desired end state the department has in mind.

One step towards a clear strategy and cohesive approach is for DoD to designate an AM Czar within the Department. They could serve as a single point for all things AM and not the myriad of technical advisory boards that currently exist. This office could then work with policy makers to execute and monitor a strategy which will allow DoD to take full advantage of this technology. Logically, this office would interface directly with the National Additive Manufacturing and Innovation Institute (NAMII) as DoD's representative
3-D Printing Revolution in Military Logistics
I think an "additive manufacturing Czar" sounds like a terrible idea (so I'm sure it will secure funding for some beltway bandits to do a study). I know my recent success with qualifying a particular additive manufacturing process and supplier for use in 3D printing wind tunnel models did not need a Pentagon king-pin to tell me about DoD's strategy for additive manufacturing. Using this technology just made sense as a way to solve my problem: get a complex wind-tunnel model rapidly, and at an affordable cost. I did not receive top-down direction or guidance to use AM, I simply took the initiative to solve my problem. After reading that article I'm left wondering, just how exactly is waiting on direction from the very heights of the bureaucracy supposed to lead to innovation?

This idea of a standard certification process is an interesting role for an DoD Additive Manufacturing Czar.
In this capacity they could help explore the various ways in which the technology could be applied across the Department and work with NAMII to help overcome one of the biggest roadblocks to adoption, certification. With so many different models of printers and materials, a clearly identified certification process has to be established so that these parts can be used in support of manned flight.
However, one of the things I don't like about standard processes (even less when coupled with a Czar) is that we often let them substitute for human judgment rather than support it. In the case of qualifying DMLS for wind-tunnel models I negotiated among the stake-holders what an acceptable level of confidence in the material properties was, and which specific properties mattered for our application (static properties mattered, high-cycle fatigue did not). This allowed us to plan for a much smaller sample size in the qualification testing than would normally be required for a certification for use in a manned aircraft application. This made the whole prospect of qualifying a new manufacturing technology much more affordable (in cost and time). The "standard" approach would have required years and hundreds of test specimens. The large numbers of specimens is required because approaches based on MMPDS/MIL-HDBK-5 focus on estimating "tail" statistics with tight confidence intervals (this sort of approach is usually of dubious value for practical risk management, but people do get to beat their chests about "statistical significance"). A large part of the innovation in this case was to pitch the "standard" qualification approach overboard. We used engineering judgment and design of experiments (DoE) to efficiently tailor our qualification effort towards our intended use and our own acceptable risk levels (i.e. "take risk and manage it").

From the Drushal and Llenza article,
They key to AM’s success within the department is an acceptance that the technology is revolutionary, not evolutionary or merely manufacturing modernization.
Success for additive manufacturing (or any new technology for that matter) depends on meeting operational needs. This is exactly why my use of AM was successful. I had a problem. I thought there might be commercial capabilities available to solve that problem in a new way. I did my homework to see if it really was more than a bull-session quality idea. When that looked promising, I developed a plan, and then sold the idea to my boss to get resources, and to my peers across the organization to leverage their expertise. I had to make two main stake-holders happy: me as the one paying for the model and consuming the data, and the folks operating the expensive facilities I would be putting at risk with this new technology. Because we were able to constrain the level of effort considerably when compared to a standard certification process, it was an effort that could be approved at a low-level in the organization. No recognition of revolutionary capability on anyone's part was necessary for our success. I imagine the folks at AEDC will be able to realize (or not) improvements to their tunnel instrumentation without any grand-sounding revolutions by using additive manufacturing techniques as well.

3-D printing hype does not portend a revolution in manufacturing anyway. The true revolution is the proliferation of inexpensive rapid-prototyping and collaboration technologies (of which additive manufacturing can be an enabling part). These technologies (e.g. RepRap-based printers, Thingiverse model sharing site) mean we can afford massively parallel experimentation. Since the cost of failure is so low, many small efforts like mine, most of which will fail to bear fruit, can still result in an over-all win. This provides considerable reason to argue against consolidation aimed at "eliminating duplicative efforts" as Drushal and Llenza suggest. The strength of rapid prototyping technology which is growing out of the open RepRap ecosystem is that the barriers to entry and forking are low. This is admittedly a completely different world than the million dollar machines from Germany which 3-D print exotic aerospace alloys. However, many of the software and design ideas (like topology optimization) can be prototyped and demonstrated with plastic printing and transfer readily to metal printing (with just a few devilish details to complicate things).

Something that many would-be innovators do not acknowledge is that "innovation" looks a lot like hard, boring work. It's tough to write soaring prose about tedious statistics, design of experiments, factors of safety or long meetings and phone calls with suppliers, contracting officers and wind-tunnel operators. You don't see those mundane details mentioned in essays like this one arguing for more "disruptive thinking" in the military. The innovation (in my case it was 3d printing wind tunnel models) is just a small piece of a larger body of work that it takes to make any new technology successful in a specific operational environment. Many would-be innovators do not get traction for their ideas because they have not done their homework to understand the complexities of their operational environment, and do not give their leadership the plausible promise that they will tackle the un-glamorous necessities required for success. As Ehrhard points out in his comparative study of weapon system innovation (focusing on UAV technology) many "innovative ideas" are just not very good. My impression of the self-proclaimed innovators (or at least many essayists on innovation) is that they are most interested in being congratulated on how smart, cutting-edge and "disruptive" they are (the DIYRocket crowd is another irritating example of "disruption" sans knowledge). They could make a more significant contribution by embracing a bit of humility, and doing the hard work to secure resources from their leadership and support from their peers necessary to successfully marry new tactics or technology with operational reality at the point of need.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an example of doing form and fit in plastic so that getting to the functional metal part is faster:
    We can try fixtures out on aircraft in thermoplastic for less than £100 and be sure they fit correctly before we make the metal equivalent,” Mr Murray says.
    Exploring the 3D printing opportunity

    No feet dragging here:
    DOD has aggressively pursued these technological developments through its various research arms. Partnering with industry and academia, DOD has pursued AM initiatives to address strategic needs, especially through the ONR. The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) announced the single awardee for a $30 million pilot institute with a focus on AM.22 Funded by multiple agencies, including DOD, DOE, Department of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), this pilot institute serves to accelerate commercialization of various AM processes.
    Toward the Printed World: Additive Manufacturing and Implications for National Security