The Manufacturing Institutes and their Impact

An Interview with Tracy G. Frost, U.S. Department of Defense

You currently lead the U.S. Department of Defense Manufacturing Institutes. Why are they important? What is their impact?

The Department of Defense Manufacturing Institutes help develop nascent technology communities that are of interest to the DOD into vibrant U.S. industrial ecosystems. Our work helps ensure the United States becomes competitive in that technology sector.

These Institutes bridge the “valley of death” between federally funded early-stage research and development and industry-funded product development and production. Institutes mature the manufacturing processes associated with advanced technologies so that companies can transition these technologies with little risk into their systems and accelerate products into the marketplace. The result is a highly capable U.S. manufacturing industrial base that can be accessed equally for commercial or defense needs.

Under this effort, DOD has established eight Manufacturing USA Institutes, each with a particular technology focus such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robotics, or flexible hybrid electronics. Each institute is a public-private partnership with industry, academia, economic development organizations, and government members at the local and federal level. Together, all boats rise.

Why are public-private partnerships important for standards development?

Public-private partnerships allow the government to support and participate in advancing technology and manufacturing, including standards development, in concert with industry and academia. When defense applications or needs are considered and then aligned with commercial requirements, the DOD can utilize the broader marketplace as their supply chain, reducing the time and cost associated with a highly specialized industrial base.

The development of standards either within or in association with a Manufacturing USA Institute includes a wider spectrum of specifications and applications, which in turn increases the coverage of industrial sectors and accelerates the adoption of the standard. Additionally, each Manufacturing USA Institute was established to contain all members of a particular technology’s ecosystem, which acts as fertile ground to
recruit technical subject matter experts during standards development.

How do standards help with innovation?

Standards, and particularly material and manufacturing standards, are a key enabler of innovation. Innovation has been described as invention or novel application of technology, but true innovation is only delivered through implementation, requiring the delivery of products or services.

Standards accelerate the transition of new or novel ideas into the marketplace. One example is the new standards work by ASTM International and other groups for metal 3D printing, which provide specifications for the allowable size, shape, and content of metal powders, along laser sintering process steps. These standards allow inventors to design radically different part shapes that can then easily be produced using a combination of new and existing materials and manufacturing technologies.

How are the Institutes involved in training the next generation of workers?

The Institutes are training a highly capable and sufficient U.S. manufacturing workforce, which is an increasingly important challenge to all companies, from Fortune 500 to small and emerging businesses. Institutes are actively engaged in education and workforce development activities at the high school, college, and career levels. They are committed to developing a pipeline of students for STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, mathematics], working with community colleges to develop stackable certificates and apprenticeships in manufacturing, in addition to providing new skills and re-training to the current U.S. workforce.

You have said manufacturing is an economic and national security issue. How so?

Manufacturing represents roughly 10 percent of the jobs and gross domestic product of the United States, but “punches above its weight” in multiple ways; it possesses the highest economic and jobs multiplier of all sectors, resulting in $1.56 in additional activity for every $1 spent and supporting up to three additional jobs for every one manufacturing job.

In terms of national security, our soldiers, sailors, and marines depend on advanced defense systems and, in turn, the department depends on our industrial base to develop, produce, and support their equipment. Advanced manufacturing capabilities are crucial to transitioning technologies out of the labs and into the field. In addition to technological superiority, DOD relies upon the nation’s ability to produce defense systems in sufficient quantity and quality. It is inconceivable that our warfighters would be dependent upon buying parts from certain other countries to maintain defense readiness. The security of the United States depends on access to a capable, reliable, and sufficient domestic industrial base.

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