The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) might not be ready to set up a booth at the next Maker Faire, but the agency is heading in that direction. DARPA’s new Adaptive Vehicle Make program has just teamed up with TechShop, a maker-friendly chain of shared workshops, to collaborate on a test bed for developing advanced new manufacturing technologies.
Combined with President Obama's initiatives for promoting advanced manufacturing technologies in the civilian sector, DARPA's initiative could help speed the development of cutting-edge systems that enable the U.S. manufacturing sector to leap into a new generation of greater energy efficiency and improved lifecycle management.
The Adaptive Vehicle Make program
The Adaptive Vehicle Make program involves designing products (in this case, military vehicles) to maximize the efficiency of new manufacturing technologies. The new test bed is part of a sub-program called the Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits (iFAB) project, which has the goal of developing a high tech foundry-style approach to manufacturing next-generation military vehicles.
Another important feature of the program is its focus on crowd sourcing. A second partner in the collaboration is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will work with TechShop to recruit veterans into the collaboration through the VA’s Innovation Initiative.
Makers and DARPA
In a prepared statement, DARPA Acting Director Kaigham J. Gabriel explained how the Maker movement and the Innovation Initiative dovetail with DARPA’s history of breaking the mold and developing cutting edge technology:
“Supporting initiatives that expand the number and diversity of talent contributing to the Nation’s defense is critical to DARPA’s efforts in advanced manufacturing. The resources made available through this effort enables more people to ‘make,’—the DNA of creativity and innovation.”
TechShop and advanced manufacturing
The new collaboration establishes a platform for sharing and comparing ideas and developing new approaches to manufacturing, with a focus on digital manufacturing. TechShop will provide access to equipment and support for participants who have promising ideas but lack the tools and training to tinker around.
Under the new partnership, TechShop will open new facilities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
A new model for American manufacturing
As a DARPA program, the iFAB project doesn't simply aim to improve the efficiency of existing vehicle manufacturing systems. Instead, the goal is to develop entirely new systems that will lift manufacturing out of the current model, in which one facility is built to manufacture one type of military vehicle.
Under the new foundry-style model, one reproducible facility will be able to turn on the fly to manufacture different vehicles, parts, and specialized tools. The result will be a far shorter time lapse between new ideas and field use, according to DARPA's press release:
“The iFAB vision is to move away from wrapping a capital-intensive manufacturing facility around a single defense product, and toward the creation of a flexible, programmable, potentially distributed production capability able to accommodate a wide range of systems and system variants with extremely rapid reconfiguration timescales.”
In support of President Obama’s goals for pushing the entire U.S. manufacturing sector into new technologies, last year DARPA announced that it would invest $1 billion in a five-year program to develop innovative manufacturing systems, with a strong emphasis on crowd-sourced projects.
Crowd-sourcing new technologies
DARPA already has a few crowd-sourced projects under its belt, and it has also begun cementing a relationship with the maker movement through its MENTOR program.
MENTOR (Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach) is a new prize-based high school outreach program that promotes innovation and teamwork across clusters of schools.
Leveraging social media, the goal is to engage students in experimenting with innovative manufacturing techniques including 3D printers, which DARPA will distribute to participating schools. DARPA expects to have 1,000 schools in the program by the 2014-15 school year.
A co-recipient of the award is the tech design company Otherlab, which developed the Makerspace platform with O’Reilly Media. Under the MENTOR partnership, O’Reilly and Otherlab will develop a “physical and digital workspace” that will provide high school students with a collaborative network as well as access to digital tools such as the open-source microcontroller Arduino and the 3D printer MakerBot.
Make Magazine founder Dale Dougherty is also the force behind Maker Faire, so keep an eye out for that DARPA booth next year.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.