Often inspiration comes from unexpected sources. The U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO) sought to tap into the inspiration and innovation of public sector partners with its inaugural Advanced Manufacturing Olympics (AMO). The resulting event offered a picture of how partnership and ingenuity could yield cost savings and increased efficiency for the military.
The AMO, which was held as a remote, online experience October 20-23, 2020, brought together leaders with vision and troops with the know-how to overcome practical, and technical challenges. It also brought together some of the best advanced manufacturing minds from academia, the military, and private industry for four days of discussion, ideas, and ingenuity.
Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr. Will Roper opened the event and illustrated why the AMO was necessary when he said, “….we realized we had a limiting factor on finding new talent and pushing the envelope and technologies like 3D printing, predictive maintenance, reverse engineering, the bread and butter of where we’re focused, and innovation and sustainment. And that’s what led to the idea of doing a competition rather than put out a solicitation…”
The resulting AMO event was designed to engage industry partners and advanced manufacturing innovators in a way that added fun and competition to the process. “Let’s make it fun,” Dr. Roper explained. “Let’s put real challenges on the table, things that will make a difference for the Air Force and the warfighter today.”
The days were comprised of keynote talks from prominent leaders from the public sector, including U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, Leland Melvin, former NASA Astronaut and NFL Wide Receiver, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, and others.
The Secretary of the Air Force, Barbara Barrett helped to kick off the event, “…your engagement during these advanced manufacturing Olympics produces an ecosystem where industry and government can cross-pollinate, exchanging ideas to accelerate innovation along these lines.” She went on to quote General Hap Arnold, who once observed that the, ”genius which could find answers was not cooped up in military or civilian bureaucracy but was to be found in universities and in the people at large.”
The vision for advanced manufacturing through the RSO is to elicit all of the best ideas, technology, and effort from all of the sectors – bringing these to bare for the benefit of our troops’ readiness and preparedness. There many obstacles to overcome to keep planes flying around the globe. Long manufacturing timelines and traditional methods often keep aircraft grounded instead of in the places they are most needed. Dr. Roper reminded us that, “entropy is against us…airplanes are not meant to fly.”
The RSO is looking for ways in which the advanced manufacturing solutions of today and tomorrow could help ensure that those planes stayed in the air for longer, and at a lower cost to the military. And that commitment to assessing and implementing new, advanced manufacturing solutions is something that the RSO thinks is lacking in the military today.
As Dr. Roper illustrated, “…as I went around these amazing places within our service, I saw amazing people, I saw commitment to mission, but what I didn’t see was a lot of new technology, especially technologies being used in commercial industry. And that set me on a passionate quest to create an organization in the Air Force that is solely chartered to bring innovation and technology into this amazing part of our military.”
And both the military and Congress are putting the effort and investment in to make that a reality. As Congressman Ryan explained, “The Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office – in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab in America – is leading a $10 million, massive area, additive manufacturing effort to develop processes and procedures to establish the capability to adequately manufacture large scale aircraft parts.”
Advanced manufacturing takes off
Advanced manufacturing methods have proven valuable in other areas of the government and across the private sector. The military is now looking to embrace and adopt the best practices that these early advanced manufacturing programs have identified.
“Atlas and Delta rockets were leaving the Earth’s atmosphere with 3D printed components onboard…[and] 3D printing has already been deployed and tested on our segment of the International Space Station,” Secretary Barrett said. “Advanced manufacturing scaled across the entire Air Force and Space Force will transform sustainment spanning beyond deterrence and defense to improvements in, for example, medical equipment and prosthetics for America’s wounded,” she continued.
The goal of the AMO is to solve tactical problems and develop solid strategy for taking full advantage of all that advanced manufacturing offers. Airplanes need parts and repair, satellites need shorter timelines for replacement parts, solutions are needed to enable readiness and sustainability. “Digital engineering and manufacturing appear to be changing areas like automotive, and consumer electronics. And the potential for us to harness it, to build all sorts of things – defense from airplane parts to satellite propulsion units, to you name it, it seems like the sky, or in the case of space, space is the limit,” Dr. Rope shared.
Between the talks of vision and the panel discussions with airmen, the AMO had five technical challenges spread throughout. These challenges attempted to solve real-world problems in team environments across the industry. Secretary Barrett explained, “the five technical challenges you have been participating in were designed to identify solutions relevant to Air and Space for sustainment problems…the Air Force and Space Force will build on solutions you are developing during these Olympics.”
The fun elements of these games have practical impacts on actual challenges. Attendees were able to hear the problem solving and ingenuity of these teams as they prepared, designed, and presented their solutions. The winners of each technical challenge were announced throughout the event.
The needs of our military, the Space Force, and the nation rely on the best available solutions, produced most efficiently, and at reduced costs. With the challenges to our troops spread across the world, and beyond, the military is turning toward advanced manufacturing to build the road forward. “The Rapid Sustainment Office designated a team laser-focused on creating a comprehensive strategy to scale advanced manufacturing across the Air and Space forces,” confirmed Secretary Barrett.
“I would love for this [the AMO] to be the shining example of a new military commercial partnership model that this country desperately needs,” Dr. Roper said of the multi-sector nature of these Olympics.
Advanced manufacturing will enable shorter timelines, reduced R&D costs, and tech-savvy businesses of all sizes to contribute to the defense of our country.
Secretary Barrett projected the coming future with advanced manufacturing at the forefront, “Digital engineering, when combined with advanced manufacturing, is the future of logistics and maintenance…To defend the nation, the Air and Space Forces will be nimble. Sustainment operations are a key part of that agility, and advanced manufacturing, combined with digital engineering, is vital to a robust, agile, resilient supply chain.”