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Why Utah and Colorado are collaborating to accelerate defense-industry diversification

Article by Bart Taylor May 15, 2017, 06:43 am MDT

Two regional developments promise to infuse much-needed expertise into the manufacturing supply chain. This week we report on the Mountain West Advanced Manufacturing Network. Next week, we'll review Colorado State University's National Science Foundation grant to study supply-chain dynamics in emerging clusters of small manufacturers. 

For the first time, higher education and industry from Utah and Colorado will collaborate in support of a regional advanced manufacturing supply chain, with Department of Defense dollars making it happen.

The Mountain West Advanced Manufacturing Network (MWAMN) will bring together the University of Utah and its new manufacturing extension partnership (MEP) center with Colorado School of Mines, Manufacturer's Edge (Colorado's MEP), and ADAPT, the Alliance for the Development of Additive Processing Technologies, created a year or so ago with an infrastructure grant from Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade. ADAPT is located at the School of Mines.

It's a $3 million award, divided equally between Utah and Colorado, that will expand on the additive manufacturing work already coming out of the ADAPT center, connect Utah's fledgling MEP to the research and data, and expand on the offerings by developing cloud-based repositories of information resulting from the MWAMN's ongoing work. The approach is to develop advanced capabilities, in part through defense-related contracts, then use the expertise and knowledge gained to upskill and retool manufacturers to better compete in commercial markets. 

According to ADAPT Technical Director Aaron Stebner, "This program creates a new manufacturing platform to advance economic and workforce resilience in response to changes in defense spending." He adds, "Enabling manufacturers to deploy additive manufacturing processes helps diversify their product offerings, expand into non-defense markets, and provide resilient employment and value to their communities and the economy independent of defense spending."

Tom Bugnitz, CEO of Manufacturer's Edge, views the grant as a means to empower the next wave of commercially viable, high-tech manufacturers. "As these companies are especially hurt by the up-and-down cycles in defense spending, this project will help these companies use additive manufacturing methods to change from defense products to commercial products and back again quickly and profitably," he says.

The University of Utah's Bart Raeymaekers emphasizes the benefits of the data effort. "The data will be added to the cloud, and artificial intelligence will be employed to help establish links among process parameters and part performance. Ultimately, the cloud database will enable defense-related businesses to innovate new products, promote economic diversification, and accelerate product development cycles."

The possibilities are intriguing. For starters, intra-state collaboration is a welcome development. States compete more than they cooperate.

Additive manufacturing, a.k.a. 3D printing, is at the center of much of the work. The parts and processes forthcoming from ADAPT's work have already pushed the technology deeper into front-line production environments. Heidi Hostetter, vice president at Colorado machine shop Faustson and ADAPT's industry board chair, notes the upside. "Today, building new parts or switching materials with this technology takes too long. Additive manufacturing holds the promise of enabling manufacturers to quickly adapt to changing market needs compared to traditional manufacturing methods." She points to a case study involving Reaction Systems and its successful certification of a 3D printed prototype.

The Department of Defense and its Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) is also sending a message that efforts to retool defense-manufacturers for commercial work will persist, despite growing pains with earlier programs, including SMART, the $6.6 million "defense-industry adjustment program" awarded to Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) in 2014. The SMART (now FourFront) investment has paid some dividends, but defense diversification isn’t one of them.  

OEA -- and OEDIT -- seem intent on getting it right. The public-private partnership model envisioned with MWAMN builds on work already underway. An OEDIT infrastructure grant funded advanced equipment that’s today available for members of ADAPT (and now Utah's network) to utilize machines that, to be fair, might have benefitted the FourFront effort. Industry players like Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin are also more deeply embedded in this program.

In the end, the initiative will be evaluated on its ability to engage more companies, to spread the impact of taxpayer-funded programs and other investments. ADAPT's off to a good start. Utah's advanced manufacturers are world-class as are Colorado's. But nothing resembling a functioning network connects the community. One that does so with expertise and information would be a fair payback, and if widely supported, provide a supply chain boost for regional manufacturing. 

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

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