Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An opportunity

On the heels of the establishment last year of a 3-D printing institute in Youngstown, Ohio, the Department of Defense is ready to launch two more manufacturing initiatives officials hope will revolutionize weapon development – and have other commercial applications.

The president in his state of the union said DoD will stand up two institutes in partnership with manufacturers and research universities. Where is still unclear, but each will focus on a specific manufacturing technology. DoD will select focus areas in the next 30 days and award contracts in the fall, according to Defense News. (Story)

The significance of these federal facilities is hard to overstate. The promise is that each will become a focal point for a particular type of manufacturing technology. The Gulf Coast region is already familiar with the benefits of versions of this type of federal initiative.

The region is home to the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Established in 1999, it's a partnership of NASA, Michoud, the state of Louisiana and the University of New Orleans. It's where NASA and its corporate partners are building the Orion spacecraft and portions of the Space Launch System.

Some 400 employees at MAF are associated with NCAM, which strives to improve U.S. competitiveness in aerospace and commercial markets and enable transfer of technology to industry partners and educational institutions. It’s been successful enough that last summer the agreement extended five years and now includes Louisiana State University. (Post)

The Gulf Coast is also home to one of 10 pilot programs of the U.S. Small Business Administration. A few years ago SBA invested more than $1 million in each of the 10 clusters nationwide. One of those clusters is the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions of Bay St. Louis, Miss., which received $1.2 million between 2010 and 2011 and $385,000 in 2012.

This region is also home to the Northern Gulf Institute, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cooperative research institute established in 2006. Led by Mississippi State University, it also includes the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

Now DoD is getting involved in creating clusters it believes will help in its mission.

The nearly 700-page National Defense Authorization Act calls for DoD to establish regional advanced technology clusters nationwide. The idea is to build science and technology based innovation capacity in areas of local and regional strength, foster economic growth and improve technologies that will advance DoD's mission.

3-D printing is just one area of high interest to the military. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, was established last summer using $45 million in pooled funds from multiple federal agencies. It focuses on advancing additive manufacturing, the industry term for 3-D manufacturing.

Put simply, additive manufacturing uses materials rather than ink to "print" a part layer by layer. It's particularly important for users who need very few of a specialized replacement part. It's also important for users -- think military -- who want to take part-making capability on the road.

Establishing the center makes the former steel town a hot spot for this cutting-edge technology. Now Washington wants to establish other institutes elsewhere to home in on other technologies that will transform manufacturing in the United States. Other focus areas may include electro-optics or lightweight composites.

For the Gulf Coast region, establishing one of these DoD institutions here makes sense. The region has a heavy military presence with all branches represented, and multiple universities have activities here. It's conceivable many of them could work together at a DoD institute. After all, they do so with the Northern Gulf Institute.

In fact, the Youngstown institute shows that even those not chosen are willing to join forces with the winning proposal. The Pentagon got more than a dozen proposals for consortiums looking to win the 3-D printing initiative. More than 80 major companies and universities that were involved in other proposed sites are participating in the Youngstown project, according to Defense News.

The same would likely happen here. It's not a stretch to picture universities from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida joining forces in a project in this region. We also have a lot of experience with federal organizations teaming together in the Gulf Coast.

NASA's Stennis Space Center is a federal city where multiple federal and state agencies have established operations. It's home to one of the four DoD Supercomputing Resource Centers and the Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Critical Information Processing and Storage. The federal and state operations there work together and share services, so they know what cooperation is all about.

One of these DoD institutions here would seem a natural.

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