April 30, 2012    Volume 19, No. 7

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Government Is Pushing Full Speed Ahead On Additive Manufacturing

By Richard A. McCormack

The federal government is quickly moving forward with the creation of a major new pilot manufacturing center that will focus on the development and implementation of "additive manufacturing" technologies. The Defense Department, which is taking the lead on the expedited program, is planning to issue a Broad Agency Announcement for a solicitation on May 15, and hold a proposers' day a week later for organizations interested in running the center. A final award should be made by mid August.

The center is expected to be funded at $45 million with money that has already been appropriated by Congress. Of the total, $30 million will come from the Departments of Energy and Defense, of which up to $15 million will be used to buy equipment. Another $10 million will be provided by the DOD ManTech program. The National Institute of Standards and Technology will contribute $5 million. NASA is also involved.

"Another $10 million in funding from the DOD Defense Production Act Title III could potentially be available to support scaling-up technologies for the Pilot Institute in support of critical national defense needs, if warranted," according to the Air Force "pre-RFP."

DOD is taking the lead for a number of reasons: The military is a sizable potential market for parts made using additive manufacturing techniques, given that it has low-volume purchases, and it deals constantly with problems of obsolescence.

The new pilot center is part of the proposed $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), which would fund up to 15 regional advanced manufacturing centers, so long as money is approved by Congress. The congressional budget request for the program that was submitted by President Obama was included in "mandatory" spending programs, giving it a better chance of funding success, although funding at such a large scale remains ambiguous.

According to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) "Special Notice" (for Solicitation No. NNMI21012) issued on April 13, the pilot will not require a 50/50 cost share by industry, academia or research organizations.

In keeping with the goals of the NNMI, the new pilot center will "bring together large and small companies, academia, federal agencies and the states to accelerate innovation by investing in industrially-relevant manufacturing technologies," says the AFRL solicitation. "These manufacturing technologies will contribute toward bridging the gap between basic research and product technology transition, provide shared assets to help companies access cutting-edge capabilities and equipment, and create an unparalleled environment to educate and train students and workers in advanced manufacturing skills."

The Air Force, which is acting as contracting agent for the DOD, says that there is only one vendor so far that has expressed interest in operating the center: ILC Dover, which has "used additive manufacturing technology for 20 years." The ILC Dover representative listed in the pre-RFP said his firm is interested in participating in the pilot but not in running it. Additive manufacturing "has a lot of potential but there is a lot of work to be done to make it cost competitive with current technologies," says Phil Spampinato of DLC, an engineering company that makes such things as space suits for NASA, impact bags used to land rovers on the surface of Mars and respirators used by soldiers in Afghanistan. The proposed pilot center "will be a step to get additive manufacturing from a niche to the mainstream," says Spampinato. "The government has to play a role because the industry is not going to invest in the developmental side of it beyond parochial interests. The government or some strategic entity has to take it to the next level. If our government doesn't do it, then the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians or others will."

The proposed Additive Manufacturing Pilot Institute will develop open architecture processes "that have flexibility in starting raw materials, in-situ metrology and process controls for quality," says the pre-solicitation announcement. It will work on fabrication of new materials that have properties such as tailored stiffness, electrical conductivity and cooling passages. It will try to improve deposition rates, surface finish, manufacturing throughput, process reliability and lower energy density. It will develop "additive manufacturing enterprise methodologies for enabling rapid design and functional fabrication of current and future DOD platforms through integration of digital designs with reverse engineering techniques using computational tools." And it will try to develop methods to "rapidly and affordably qualify additive manufacturing processes."

The government hopes the institute will become self-sustaining in five years.

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