Atlas, a partly 3D-printed robot made by Boston Dynamics, was "created for use in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). Source: DARPA.mil

An Era of Consistent Construction: DARPA’s Open Manufacturing Initiative

Sep 10, 2015

by Victoria Young

As revolutionary as 3D printing is, the industry continues to face serious challenges that make progress slow.

Mechanical inconsistencies and a lack of standardization mean patents have limited growth and applications for the entire additive manufacturing (AM) industry. And without the guarantee of safe, reliable, and trustworthy prints, the additive manufacturing industry won't be able to reach mass distribution.

That's where the Open Manufacturing Initiative comes in.

Open Manufacturing was launched by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—better known as DARPA—in May 2015 to address key pain points felt by the AM industry. The initiative focuses on centralizing information gleaned from variations in print results in order to develop standardization of mass 3D printing, as well as to make more accurate predictions on the optimal method and outcome of any given additive project.

The initiative is seeking to answer a host of questions: How do different materials interact, and how will they impact the microstructure of the print? Which combination of materials and printing techniques is most efficient? How can variability in final prints be reduced so that processes can be scaled?

The Legged Squad Support System (LS3), also made by Google's Boston Dynamics for DARPA, is designed to take some of the weight off members of the United States military. The machine walks along soldiers through rugged terrain, carrying up to 400 pounds of weapons and other gear. Source: DARPA.mil

“The reliability and run-to-run variability of new manufacturing techniques are always uncertain at first," wrote Michael Maher, program manager in DARPA's Defense Sciences Office, when Open Manufacturing launched. "The 'test and retest' approach is inevitably expensive and time-consuming, ultimately undermining incentives for innovation."

By identifying what works and then defining the standards for those processes, DARPA wants to help accelerate a broad range of defense and national-security needs by reducing time to production. According to the DARPA website, Open Manufacturing is testing rapid qualification technologies including:

  • The Rapid Low Cost Additive Manufacturing (RLCAM) predicts materials performance for direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) using a nickel-based super alloy powder.
  • The Titanium Fabrication (tiFAB) identifies key parameters that affect the quality of large manufactured structures, such as airplane wings.
  • The Transition Reliable Unitized Structure TRUST) quantifies various elements of the composite-bonding process to enable adhesives alone to join composite structures.

—Source: DARPA.mil

DARPA expects these current programs to revolutionize the standard for how the entire Open Manufacturing framework functions.

"We believe these frameworks are robust and broadly applicable to manufacturing technologies. If successful, it is believed that these frameworks can become or inform standards to enable rapid qualification of new manufacturing technologies," says Maher in an interview with ASME.

Given DARPA's mission to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security, the Open Manufacturing program serves as a key strategic investment. "Multiple programs under OM have been successful and are being transitioned to a number of federal agencies and across DoD [Department of Defense] supply chains," Maher says.

Challenges of standardization in AM

As promising as it is, the program does not come without its own host of challenges—namely, figuring out how to verify and validate the current framework and tools being used.

Since the compilation, analysis, and comparison of the data the program produces take about two years to be finalized, it is difficult to gauge the efficacy of the investments. Furthermore, because the industry is evolving so rapidly, changes happen all the time that force DARPA to balance being agile enough to adapt to shifts in the industry and focused enough to achieve the goals the originally set for themselves.

Still, DARPA's Open Manufacturing program is one of the few taking these challenges head-on, and that's made it a thought leader in the industry. "Open Manufacturing has an extensive outreach program. Outside industry providing feedback for these technologies helps to further validate and/or improve the established frameworks," Maher says.

He emphasizes that even in its early stages, the DoD and commercial industries are already benefiting from the way the Open Manufacturing framework facilitates technology transitions across the industry. Additionally, DARPA's new Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities act as knowledge bases and testing centers that hold the history and future of approaches to act as a catalyst for 3D printing.

In an online post, Maher detailed how greatly the American military has benefited from advancements in materials development and manufacturing breakthroughs. But AM implementation has been difficult—Maher wrote that the risks associated with trying out new forms of manufacturing has made companies and organizations reticent to try AM out.

“Through the Open Manufacturing program, DARPA is empowering the advanced manufacturing community by providing the knowledge, control, and confidence to use new technology."

The new frontier of additive manufacturing can be intimidating to navigate; fortunately, there’s the ASME AM3D conference to help guide you as you integrate AM into your business. Learn more about the ASME Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Conference and Expo here.