Written by Dabney B. on Monday, November 12th, 2012
The United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency isn’t trying to reinvent the wing, but it is trying to reinvent how we manufacture wings. DARPA wants to tear down the existing military manufacturing process and rebuild the whole thing with a 2012 perspective.
This stems from discontent over the current manufacturing process. It may have worked well back in the World War I and World War II eras, but it lags behind in the Age of Information. Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, DARPA’s Adaptive Vehicle Make program manager, said, “It’s safe to say that the direction we have been going in military acquisitions is not a sustainable path. We simply can’t continue to spend more and get less for the money we spend.”
So, what’s the problem with the current system? To figure it out, we should consider that old phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When designing a new piece of technology like an aircraft, dedicated teams of professionals each work on individual parts to make the perfect wing, the perfect engine, or the perfect cockpit. Once they’re done you stick them all together and test out the airplane. And inevitably, “Things overheat or vibrate loose because it would take too much computation to predict and evaluate all those interactions. That means we have to go back and redesign, rebuild and retest.”
By then the government has already dumped millions of dollars into an inherently flawed design. A 2010 review found that the US Army had spent $22 billion in the past 15 years on programs that were eventually cancelled. Can the American taxpayer keep wasting so much cash on failed projects? Probably not, especially with the looming cuts to military spending.
The new manufacturing model, Wiedenman argues, should focus more on the forest and less on all of the individual trees. He envisions a manufacturing process that will enable designers to virtually test all of their creations before the first engineer even so much as picks up a screwdriver. Once they’ve built this manufacturing system, they can apply it to virtually any project. Mike Yukish of Penn State University likened it to a spell-checker. Why waste money and manpower editing thousands of individual documents when you can build a single spell-checker program that can check for errors in any document?
This could lead to a dramatic shift in how the military industry interacts with pilots. Rather than building a cockpit and asking a pilot what he thinks, this new model would enable industry leaders to get input from test pilots and military consulting firms during every step of the design process. In fact, a virtual-focused design would enable designers to fundamentally alter an aircraft’s features based on the brilliant input of a single pilot. Wiedenman hopes that this could save billions of dollars and cut the time it takes to manufacture weapons and aircraft by a factor of five. Not only should that cut down on costs, but it should also give the US a head start in the unending international arms race.
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