ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 10, 2014) -- Since the early 1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, has been making investments to jump-start additive manufacturing. However, rapid adoption of advanced manufacturing techniques continues to face steep barriers as the industry seeks confidence that critical parts will perform as predicted. This led DARPA to focus on how to ensure that the technology meets the technical expectations of the marketplace.

"We looked at setting up the Open Manufacturing program to see if we could build more confidence in these manufacturing technologies so that we can actually realize their potential," said Michael "Mick" Maher, DARPA Open Manufacturing program manager.

Maher said metallic parts created through additive manufacturing, known as AM, have typically been used for rapid prototyping, not for the actual manufacturing of products.

"Improved build capabilities and expanded material palette have led to enhanced focus on using metals AM for rapid manufacturing of optimized parts intended for actual use in platforms, including rotating turbine engine components and critical load-bearing aircraft structures. But, metals AM still faces barriers to gaining acceptance," he said.

For the past two years, DARPA has been developing a methodology and framework for building confidence in these new manufacturing technologies. The agency set up and funded two manufacturing demonstration facilities, known as MDFs.

The MDF located at the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory focuses on additive manufacturing.

"At Penn State, they actually assess the technologies," Maher said. "There are a lot of different types of additive manufacturing. Penn State has the capability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. They are also the facility that curates our process models. As people begin to develop new modeling techniques, they always want to know: Where do I use this? Why is this one better than the other? Penn State becomes my trusted agent that allows me to do that assessment."

The other MDF, located with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., supports a bonded composites effort.

"What is particularly important to the additive community is that the ARL MDF is also the place where we store our material and process data," Maher said. "For a long time, government agencies would buy material analysis. We wouldn't buy the actual raw material data and the pedigree that goes with it. The ARL MDF becomes a facility that now, whenever the government is generating data, they will be able to store it and make it available for other government agencies."

DARPA hopes to help create a definitive knowledge base for the entire industry. "One of the things we have been doing is working with the America Makes manufacturing institute," Maher said. "They are utilizing our framework and our database as the basis for what they're doing."

America Makes is the presidential initiative to create a public-private partnership to create advanced manufacturing techniques and empower the U.S. economy.

DARPA is also working with industry to develop rapid qualification methodologies and frameworks.

"With Open Manufacturing, we are highly optimistic," he said. "We are coming out of our phase one and looking at the results that we are getting from our performers. Honeywell is working with the direct metal laser sintering process, and Boeing is working with the electron beam additive manufacturing process. In both cases, we are extremely pleased with the results, which we see as being able to predict performance based on our probabilistic models and the rich material and process information."

Building confidence in critical parts created with new technologies and rapid qualification of these procedures are still major challenges.

"From a DARPA perspective, we invest in revolutionary, high-risk, high-payoff programs. The last investments in additive manufacturing, before doing the Open Manufacturing program, were probably 10 to 15 years ago. We got back into it because we saw there were challenges that needed to be addressed."

In the future, DARPA hopes designers and manufacturers will embrace the new capabilities afforded by additive manufacturing and the actual production process will become transparent to the end user.

The DARPA Open Manufacturing program will continue its quest for two more years during phase two.

"To fully implement, we have a plan that goes out another year-and-a-half after that," Maher said. "One of the things we're doing to ensure that we get adoption of the technology is by including an expert panel to provide some informal feedback for the Open Manufacturing program."

The expert panel includes members from the Service science and technology communities, certification authorities, the U.S. Army Manufacturing Technology Program, Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and U.S. Army Evaluation Center.

"They know what's coming down the road and they are aware of our capabilities and what we're doing with the technology," he said. "That's one of the reasons we're very confident that people are going to adopt these techniques in the future."


This article appears in the July/August issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on 3-D printing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.