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Christopher Mims

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How DARPA Plans to Reinvent U.S. Manufacturing

DoD research wing wants to make everything from tanks to bombers in “fabs.”

  • August 25, 2010

What if winning the Army’s contest to design a new armored fighting vehicle was as simple as uploading your CAD files and other specifications to the U.S. Military, which would then have the capability to build your proposed vehicle - and all the other competing designs - in a generic fabrication facility?

If that sounds crazy, it’s because everything the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency proposes is deliberately out-there, from powered exoskeletons and synthetic blood, to robot insects and a flying submarine.

And DARPA has the budget to make these things happen, if they’re even possible on a short enough time horizon: Americans are 4% of the world’s population and half of its military spending, and DARPA alone has a research budget of $3.2 billion.

What DARPA is proposing is in its new iFAB program, for which it will soon ask for requests for proposals from private industry, is a “foundry-style manufacturing capability.” By which they mean microchip foundries - the generic, build-any-chip-for-any-designer factories that churn out microchips for every application you can imagine, and which are the dominant mode of manufacture for most of the silicon in use today. (A handful of companies, like Intel, are rich enough to stick to the old way of doing things, and still own their own chip fabs.)

Here’s how DARPA describes the program:

The specific goals of the iFAB program are to rapidly design and configure manufacturing capabilities to support the fabrication of a wide array of infantry fighting vehicle models and variants. Parallel efforts titled vehicleforge.mil and Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Combat Vehicle (FANG) seek to develop the infrastructure for and conduct a series of design challenges (termed Adaptive Make Challenges) intended to precipitate open source design for a prototype of the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV).

You read that right - the Army wants to open source the construction of its next-generation armored combat vehicle, the one that will replace its current workhorse, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

[Are you enjoying this post so far? If you are, help me expand into an hour-long talk for this year’s SXSW tech conference in Austin. Vote for it as a panel here.]

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because companies like Local Motors are already trying to make this happen for everyday vehicles - custom design and custom manufacturing all made possible through what used to be called rapid prototyping and is now just making stuff in a big hurry.

The difference is that DARPA doesn’t want to end up with just a bunch of kit cars - or in this case, kit tanks. DARPA wants to literally reinvent manufacturing - not just so they can build new vehicles more easily, but because they have a not-so-secret ambition to revive America’s manufacturing base.

The iFAB end vision–to be developed in the second phase of the program which will be solicited under a separate BAA at the conclusion of the present effort–is that of a facility which can fabricate and assemble the winning FANG designs, verified and supplied in a comprehensive metalanguage representation with META/META-II tools.

Not everyone agrees that this is kind of manufacturing is a realistic goal - DARPA has a history of bringing on science fiction authors and futurists to help it brainstorm new ideas, and it’s possible they were a little too high on a particular article from Wired when they wrote this document. But that’s the point of DARPA - they fund things that no one else would, and eventually, that technology trickles down to the civilian sector.

[ If you want to hear more about all the crazy science that DARPA is funding these days, vote to make it a panel talk at this year’s SXSW tech conference in Austin. (Which, as you may know, is desperately in need of more presentations that are about actual technology, rather than just thinly-veiled promotions for the employer of whatever developers are sitting on the panel.) ]

Image of Bradley Fighting Vehicle courtesy Fort Knox Public Affairs Office

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