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DARPA Pays $3.5 Million For New TechShops and Secret Reconfigurable Factories 116

Posted by Soulskill
from the redesigning-construction-methods dept.
pacopico writes "Businessweek reports that DARPA will pay for the creation of two new TechShops in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh. The $3.5 million deal includes 2,000 TechShop memberships for military veterans and will have DARPA employees performing top secret work at night. 'The project is called iFab. For a month, a given factory might use dozens of machines to make parts for helicopters. Then you reboot the software controlling the machines, and out come the parts for the drive train system in a tank. The Darpa workers at TechShop will try to figure out which tools and methods can be used to rewire factories in this fashion.' Maker mayhem."
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DARPA Pays $3.5 Million For New TechShops and Secret Reconfigurable Factories

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  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:36PM (#40093153) Homepage Journal

    Is this a hedge in case China decides to stop making shit for the US? Or plain ol' pork?

    • Probably B disguised as A
      • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Insightful)

        by jamstar7 (694492) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @05:00PM (#40093429)

        Is this a hedge in case China decides to stop making shit for the US? Or plain ol' pork?

        Probably B disguised as A

        I'm thinking, probably Plan A disguised as Plan B. DARPA people are pretty damned clever. They know how to play that favorite of all gameshows on the Hill, 'The Appropriations Game'.

    • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Informative)

      by MozeeToby (1163751) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:40PM (#40093197)

      Yeah, after all, the US only exports $1.5 trillion dollars worth of good every year. Just the second largest exporter in the world (second to China, despite having less than 1/3 the population). Yeah, the US doesn't make anything these days.

      • Yep, and the imports outstrip that. For the three months to March good and services imports averaged $233 gigabucks and exports averaged $183.1. With China in March imports outstripped exports by $21.7 gigabucks. That said, secret-squirrel-shit, ITAR restricted or bespoke components for military equipment are unlikely to be imported, even from allies.

        Source: FT900: U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services [census.gov]

      • How much of what we export is stuff that we MAKE...versus stuff that we design here but produce elsewhere (i.e. Apple) or resources such as wood/steel/coal? We don't have the education system in place to develop a skill manufacturing sector in the way that other countries (i.e. Germany) do.

    • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Baloroth (2370816) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:42PM (#40093215)
      It's DARPA, so neither really. Just them doing things to see if they can, which is 99% of what DARPA does. Also encouraging innovation and experimentation... which again, is what DARPA is all about.
      • by GodInHell (258915)
        And thank God for them. Someone has to invest in the U.S. with a sight-line longer than three quarters down the road.
    • Re:Hmmm (Score:5, Informative)

      by SirGarlon (845873) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:52PM (#40093341)
      No, it's applied research to advance the state of manufacturing. It looks like a natural step in the movement toward just-in-time manufacturing and supply-chain efficiency, probably aimed at replacement parts rather than whole vehicles and equipment. They apparently want the ability to retool factories for military production much as was done in WWII, only faster and more selectively hopefully on a much smaller scale. So instead of shutting down car production to make tanks, industry will be able to make tanks on one shift and keep making cars for the other two (for example).
    • by couchslug (175151)

      Once you level the playing field with automation, the hordes of cheap Chinese labor are less of an advantage.

      The ideal would be reconfigurable, lights-out manufacturing.

      The Chinese couldn't compete because of shipping costs.

      • 'level playing field with automation' is ignorant. have you SEEN how things are assembled in china? its mostly by hand.

        if they could do it with machines, they would. machines don't jump to their death or complain or work slower at night.

        they use people because, even in today's world, people are still needed to build things and robots are just not the answer to ALL manuf challenges.

        we'll never compete with china as long as it takes people to build things. and it does.

        • They build things by hand because the electronics industry moves too fast to set up automated production lines. This research aims to end that.
          • by St.Creed (853824)

            Did you know the codename for the research? They're still trying to decide between "Screamer" and "Skynet" :)

        • by mhajicek (1582795)
          China uses people because people are cheaper than automation there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhdH1ezM7To [youtube.com]
        • by rtb61 (674572)

          Establishing the production facility with people is far cheaper as well as obviously retooling, also when they loose a contract, they can readily switch over to another product. As China shifts to manufacturing for the local market with self produced branded products so the increase in automation will occur. Consider the cost of a $50,000.00 or more machine versus training a disposable person. Until those disposable people decide that they are no longer disposable they will continue to be exploited. Labour

        • by couchslug (175151)

          "have you SEEN how things are assembled in china? its mostly by hand."

          Just because they do it by hand now doesn't make that the end-all solution.

          Stihl is producing chainsaw bars within a few percent of ChiCom cost in their US plants.

          As US labor costs drop (BMW in SC already exports Bimmers to China) and we leverage automation, the Chinese edge will be blunted.

          The Chinese will always have the shipping barrier of the Pacific to contend with.

      • by lgw (121541)

        The playing field has been leveled with automation for decades. China is losing jobs to automation faster than they're gaining them to outsourcing. Manufacturing output in the US has been flat or rising for decades, despite the fall-off of manufacturing jobs, because that's what technology does

  • Haven't got to the article yet, but in the summary I keep reading...

    Then you reboot the software controlling the machines, and out come the parts for the drive train system in a tank.

    I still don't get what a reboot has to do with this. Is it running Windows?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Journalist ignorance. Whats implied is lean "one part pull" where a machine is used to capacity making parts based on existing demand rather than projected demand. It relies on fixture engineering designed to minimize setup and tear down time with build in accuracy.

      I do not believe what is implied to be an accurate desciption of what will actually occur. What is actually more likely is the versatility of cnc equipment is being glamorized. In practice, these tech shops are intended to be inventor cooperative

      • by mhajicek (1582795)

        What is actually more likely is the versatility of cnc equipment is being glamorized.

        Indeed. I'm a CNC programmer in a shop currently making components for die casting. If management told us to we could just as easily be making tank, helicopter, or rifle parts tomorrow. CNC machines are general purpose by nature.

        • by peragrin (659227)

          Now combine several different forms of CNC machines, (with different cuttings heads for materials)

          Add in some robotic arms to move parts around the factory, and quite literally have a 90% automated factory that can produce any physical object and do it in decent quantity levels.

          You could churn out anything whenever you wanted.

          yep no commercial value there.

          • by TheKidWho (705796)

            It's not so easy to move parts from one machine to the other with robotic arms.

            • by mhajicek (1582795)
              It can be done, but it only makes sense in a production (quantity) environment. Bobcat's plant in Gwinner ND barely has any humans touch the work, but they're making the exact same thing over and over. For short runs it would take longer to program and debug the robots than to do the work manually. BTW, standard CNC machines have had automatic toolchangers for decades. Some have hundreds of tool stations, and what's called a "pallet changer" which automatically exchanges one pre-set-up workpiece for ano
              • by TheKidWho (705796)

                I know how these things work, I'm a manufacturing engineer and program 5 axis machines on a daily basis. The work has to have significant constraints placed on it for it to work easily with a robotic system however. Frequently this is not possible.

    • by Tynin (634655)

      Haven't got to the article yet, but in the summary I keep reading...

      Then you reboot the software controlling the machines, and out come the parts for the drive train system in a tank.

      I still don't get what a reboot has to do with this. Is it running Windows?

      I imagine it would be something similar in practice to re-kickstart [wikipedia.org]'ing a server with a different and highly specialized OS and packages. Want to build tanks this week, reboot all the controller nodes and have them boot the custom tank settings. Heli blades, reboot them into the custom helicopter setting. If you want to make sure that all your nodes are all running the exact same thing, this approach is the way to go.

      • by mhajicek (1582795)
        No, it's more like if you want to make a tank part you load the file, tools, and stock for the tank part. CNC machines are general purpose by nature. I've programmed and run parts for medical, military and aerospace all on the same machines one right after another. To a job shop (machine shop that will take work from anyone) a part is a part no matter what it's for. Would you change operating systems on your computer because you want to visit a different website?
    • And while we are researching that, can we also figure out why Kickstarter, which crowd funds projects, is named after a motorcycle starting system? I can't see the conection!

  • Better linking... (Score:5, Informative)

    by sortadan (786274) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:45PM (#40093251)
    Always link to the printable version in the future please! http://www.businessweek.com/printer/articles/26828-techshop-paradise-for-tinkerers [businessweek.com] (still have the splash, but then it's one page not 5 or whatever).
  • Top secret work? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7&cornell,edu> on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @04:50PM (#40093313) Homepage

    Nowhere in the article is any mention that the DARPA employees would be doing TS work.

    Periods processing of the sort required to do TS work at night in a facility used by civilians during the day is basically impossible...

  • Whether we want a mechanical army which is within reach or maybe a clone army that could fight better.

  • The project is called iFab.

    Cue Apple trademark lawsuit in 3... 2... 1... :-)

    • . . . only if the factory building has round corners . . .

      . . . or does Apple own a patent titled, "A Method and Process for Making Stuff in a Building" . . . ?

  • Adaptable factories? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wiegeabo (2575169) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @05:16PM (#40093567)

    So...a factory that can more quickly and efficiently adapt to changes in demand? That can, instead of needing mass layoffs or closing up shop entirely, reconfigure their processes and retrain employees (increasing their skill sets if they ever need different future employment) to produce different things? Moving suppliers one level closer to being able to swiftly and effectively respond to the economic climate?

    And all this research is only going to cost $3.5 million or so?

    If they can make this work, and can be spread to other US suppliers, that $3.5 million investment will be paid back in no time in economic development. Hell, if it's a significant enough improvement, it could eventually help revitalize the US manufacturing industry by significantly upping our competitive advantage.

    • DARPA isn't the one to make this happen. They try to show that something is plausible...and they get the requisite people working with each other and exploring technology. They expect industry or the DoD to make it happen after DARPA's $3.5M feasibility study has ended.

      • by wiegeabo (2575169)

        DARPA isn't the one to make this happen. They try to show that something is plausible...and they get the requisite people working with each other and exploring technology. They expect industry or the DoD to make it happen after DARPA's $3.5M feasibility study has ended.

        Yes, DARPA will do the fundamental R&D.

        But when the private sector sees the results (assuming they're promising and cost effective), they'll definitely want to jump on this. And when the Rust Belt politicians get wind that it'll help revitalize the manufacturing sector, they'll be throwing their support that way too. Gives them something to tell their constituents.

  • by Fishbulb (32296) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @05:30PM (#40093719)

    It's more than a bit concerning that the most flexible, agile, and innovative part of the economy is the military.

    Any one else think we need CARPA - the Civilian Advanced Research Project Agency? Preferably one that has nothing to do with the government.

    • There is no such thing as 'nothing to do with the government'. You think SpaceX doesnt answer to NASA?
    • Re:Hmmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by peragrin (659227) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @07:02PM (#40094755)

      Darpa was originally called ARPA. Advanced Research Project Agency. The problem is the civilian government kept cutting it's budget because civilians don't' need advance research(see Tea Party and current science trends in America for a scary example)

      The DOD worked with ARPA to fund it by renaming it to DARPA. DARPA got to do all of it's cool stuff only now they advertise to the congress critters as Defense so it doesn't get budget cut.

      • by khallow (566160)

        The problem is the civilian government kept cutting it's budget because civilians don't' need advance research(see Tea Party and current science trends in America for a scary example)

        The decline in US science predates unhappy people unwilling to pay for it. There are a lot of big "science" projects and fields out there which are fundamentally broken scientifically and economically, such as fusion research and manned space.

        Most of the people advocating continued public funding of science have yet to explain how to reverse the trend of declining scientific value per money spent. Best I've heard is to maintain a balance of small versus large projects, but that's only a part of the probl

        • by peragrin (659227)

          like all things way to much of the money is spent on marketing and selling up your idea to get funding.

          While most of what Darpa funds does thisThey also fund many little things that you don't realize you use.

          • by khallow (566160)
            It's worth noting here that these sorts of vague, intangible claims are part of the problem. We could point to influenced advances in say, trauma medicine or the internet due to DARPA investigations, or we could just wiggle our fingers and say what you did. The latter statement is far less verifiable and accountable than even a brief statement with specific claims of benefit.

            Having said that, I find even in the best arguments, things like opportunity cost are roundly ignored. A key problem with spinoffs
            • by pnutjam (523990)
              I disagree, without DARPA, we would have internet2 for gov and education while the rest of us are stuck on AOL or Prodigy.
              • by khallow (566160)

                I disagree, without DARPA, we would have internet2 for gov and education while the rest of us are stuck on AOL or Prodigy.

                Well, that's what happened anyway. People just didn't stay stuck on AOL and Prodigy because of popular open alternatives such as email, USENET, and the WWW. DARPA had nothing to do with these aside from paying someone (AT&T maybe?) to build the first email system.

      • and then they formed IARPA
        http://www.iarpa.gov/whatis.html [iarpa.gov]

    • by SirGarlon (845873)

      Any one else think we need CARPA - the Civilian Advanced Research Project Agency? Preferably one that has nothing to do with the government.

      Based on the amount of money US companies invest in R&D, I think the answer is self-evident: no, no one else thinks that.

      Exception: Google does spend a metric shitload of money [google.com] on R&D, but since their main business is spying on you [google.com] and stealing intellectual property [wikipedia.org] they didn't produce, that kind of calls into question the public benefit of their "research".

  • Meh. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PPH (736903) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @05:40PM (#40093835)

    Sounds like standard CNC capabilities.

    When I was working for Boeing, a decade ago, they were transitioning from fixed jig assembly to laser coordinate measurement driving floor mounted hydraulic positioning equipment.

    The benefits were:
    1) No more huge jigs. Need to adjust a setting? No need to mod the jig, just tweak the s/w.
    2) Eventually, each assembly line could handle any model. Just punch a button and the jacks position themselves to hold any body section.
    3) Everything was modular, floor mounted and relatively compact. Union problems? Just load your production equipment into a couple of shipping containers and move it to a more hospitable environment. Any large building with a flat floor will do.

    • This does come up against something I've been trying to work out the numbers on:

      - what's the $ per hour figure for running such a machine?
      - how does that balance against the efficiencies of ganging up elements (when possible) for production?

      I've begun making wooden cases for my archery gear, and have the tools to do all the cuts efficiently (save for routing out the stopped dado / groove in the end pieces):

      http://www.3riversarchery.com/images/Contest2010/WilliamAdamsTakeDownCase.jpg [3riversarchery.com]

      It doesn'

      • by PPH (736903)

        I don't know what the cost breakdown is. Industrial Engineering is a discipline unto itself. But here are a few things to consider:

        How many different jig/tooling setups will you need per case? How many parts will you make per setup? The more parts per setup, the better you will be able to spread your setup costs across multiple parts. You should time yourself on a couple of parts runs for this data.

        On the other hand, the bigger the batches you do, the more money you'll have tied up in the material in proc

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I always had this idea that somehow the DIY concept in the hands of frontline troops would dramatically reduce the cost of our weapons systems and result in more effective and practical equipment.

    The current procurement process is:
    1. DOD compiles a bunch of specs (the people compiling them are usually bureaucrats or desk general, who are always refighting the last war.)
    2. Give specs to a bunch of greedy civilian contractors (who over promise vaporware).
    3. Then designed by civilian engineers and scientists w

  • Why Pittsburgh and DC? DC is where all the bureaucrats are and as far as I know, Pittsburgh has no major military research laboratory. Why not put the lab near a major military research organization that does actual hands on research and would actually be interested in using these services?

    • by Widowwolf (779548)
      Probably because Pittsburgh has tons of factory spaces that are completely abandoned and would be dirt cheap..There are probably tons of veterans which Darpa tends to hire there as well as a lot of TechDirt wanna be members there as well. As for your talk of Hands-on research, who better then veterans of the military
    • Dunno about DC, but Pittsburgh is probably because of this [cmu.edu]. CMU has a long history of working with DARPA, plus CMU and Pittsburgh generally have a long history in heavy manufacturing. They were driving around DARPA-funded full-sized autonomous robotic vehicles on the CMU campus in the mid-80s, and were also working on manufacturing technology transfer to industry (think AI and expert systems then).
  • > reboot the software

    *eye twitch*
  • It's a hackerspace for feds.

  • ... across the USA (my modest proposal): http://pcast.ideascale.com/a/dtd/44897-8319 [ideascale.com]
    "Being able to make things is an important part of prosperity, but that capability (and related confidence) has been slipping away in the USA. The USA needs more large neighborhood shops with a lot of flexible machine tools. The US government should fund the construction of 21,000 flexible fabrication facilities across the USA at a cost of US$50 billion, places where any American can go to learn about and use CNC equipment l

  • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @09:31PM (#40095811) Homepage

    I have a TechShop membership, and have spent a lot of time there. What goes on there is mostly not all that high-tech. Most of it is hobby artwork. Some people are repairing cars. Others are making furniture. The electronics facilities are basic and little used. Much of the machine shop usage is by pros from companies nearby that need some machining done.

    At times, it's rather pathetic. iPhones and iPads are made in China. Here in Silicon Valley, we have people making bamboo cases for them, and cheap plastic things to hold them on dashboads with suction cups.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It's selection bias. It's going to take a long time for the next generation of inventors and engineers to grow in to this new opportunity. Most of us who came of age before the techshop business model came in to existence have developed our own basement machine shops for want of such a service. Those of us that already have them prefer the convenience of our basement. But those who do not already have the capability will slowly begin to fill this empty space which didn't use to exist.

  • Quite a bit of work was done on this back in the mid 1980s. The versatile factory capable of quick redirection came along with the concept of inventory taxes. The notion being that if a factory could convert from making fishing reels to brake assemblies or whatever in a few hours then many product lines could keep going with almost no inventory in storage. It was going fairly well back then but there was an issue with the price of the help needed to keep everything in order back then. That was mostl
  • As manufactured products use more and more specialized materials (because of weight savings, usually), the manufacturing becomes more and more complicated.

    Back in the day, blacksmiths could manufacture a wide variety of metal parts, each one unique by modern standards. Then, with the industrial age, interchangeable parts with tight tolerances became the norm, but an auto or tractor factory could still be retooled to make tanks or planes by following the prints and using the same machinery. Not so much an

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