The design and production of advanced capabilities are being increasingly challenged, as three technological disturbances erode limits of current manufacturing processes.
Long-standing concepts of and approaches to the design and production of advanced capabilities are being increasingly challenged by three inter-connected upheavals that will erode limits of current manufacturing processes. As a result, these innovations will generate disruptive shifts in the ‘realm of the possible’ for the global aerospace, space and defense industry; militaries; and national security and intelligence communities around the world.
The ‘Materials Revolution’: Going Small to Go Big
Many materials have exceptionally dynamic and useful properties at the atomic or, in the case of biomaterials, genome level that they lose naturally at the macro or micro level. The list of disruptive and innovative atomic/individual genome-level properties of interest to aerospace and defense industry companies and the markets they support is long and growing longer. Much attention has been focused on properties that enable self-healing; adaptation to environmental conditions or external stimuli; extreme speed, resilience and strength at (frequently much) lower weights; natural or highly efficient storage or diffusion of energy; and enhanced low observability.
As scientists and engineers have sought to develop novel materials to drive entirely new capabilities, they have worked to capture and control the properties displayed at this most fundamental level in constructing larger scale materials. These processes remain technological challenges – especially given the complexity and unpredictability of bio-systems – yet to be fully conquered.
However, progress is being made (as are increasingly large and more focused investments by aerospace, space and defense communities and industries) in creating new materials consisting of components broken down to their smallest levels before being built back up in order to achieve ‘big’ and potentially game-changing effects.
Manufacturing Revolution: Reinforcing Innovation and Driving Scale through Precision and Automation
Effectively leveraging the growing ability to design these new materials with novel properties is reliant on the concurrent development of new means of building and manufacturing at scale products with a new level of precision and customization.
Additive manufacturing is likely to be a critical component of this process because it allows for the sort of precision necessary to build end-products, fraction-of-an-inch-by-fraction-of-a-customized-inch, from multiple delicately engineered smart or biomaterials.
Automation, too, is a critical component of the emerging Manufacturing Revolution. For example, in synthetic biology, the hard work of building entirely new DNA sequences and bio-systems has long been more an art than a scalable process, taking weeks or more of isolated individual tests to determine the properties of new bio-systems. The increasingly robust–but still not mature – ability to develop entirely new biologies using computer aided design software and the accumulated knowledge of tens of thousands or more of replicable and repeatable tests could be a massive step forward for synthetic biology manufacturing – moving the design and development of highly-customized effects from an artisanal craft to an automated industry.
The ‘Assembly’ Revolution
BionicOpter DragonflyRevolutionary efficiencies and performance enhancements could also be gained by removing the ‘Assembly’ stage from the manufacturing process in the chart above, a development enabled by the use of 3D printers or synthetic biology manufacturing. Removing assembly can increase robustness of parts, platforms and products – fewer joints and rivets can provide more structural integrity – reduce costs and shorten manufacturing timelines. It will also almost certainly lead to an increase in point-of-use production, which could have revolutionary implications for consumer habits, business supply chains, space exploration and, of course, military operations around the world.
Novel Confluences and the Dawn of the ‘Design Age‘
The intersection of these prospective revolutions is driving shifts not only in manufacturing models, but also in the conceptualisation of what types of products and capabilities – military, commercial, civil – are now possible. If and as these transformative capabilities in materials and manufacturing continue and collide – as they are doing in very constructive ways through 4D printing – long-standing constraints on design (on what is within the realm of the possible) will be smashed, or, at the very least, challenged in stark and destabilizing ways.
The end result could be the ushering in of the ‘Design Age’ in which manufacturing processes and material properties will be seen as powerful enablers of constructive innovations in capabilities and products rather than constraints.