The Department of Defense (DoD) is in the process of transforming the U.S. armed forces from a Cold War-era fighting force to one that is lighter, more flexible, and more reliant on technology. This fighting force will be able to respond to a wide range of asymmetric threats with speed and efficiency. Accelerating the transition of new technologies into defense systems will be crucial to achieving this military transformation. However, the typical time required for moving new materials and processing technologies from research to applications is at least 10 years, and many times even longer. Historical precedents for the transition of new technologies into defense systems have been neither fast nor efficient.
These typically long delays are attributed to the complexity of the invention, development, and transition process. Technology transition involves a variety of internal and external partnerships for the various stages of the process. Usually, academic, government, and industrial corporate laboratories lead the concept refinement and technology development; industry leads system development, demonstration, and production; and warfighters take the lead in deployment, operations, and support. While each partner has a critical responsibility in the process, team members may all have different goals, time lines, and funding levels. Achieving active collaboration among these partners during all phases of technology transition is a key goal for success.
Recognizing these challenges, the DoD is exploring methods to expedite the adoption of new materials technologies in defense systems. To increase understanding in this area, the DoD requested that the National Research Council (NRC) sponsor a focused workshop to examine the lessons learned from rapid technology applications by successful, integrated design and manufacturing groups. The NRC Committee on Accelerating Technology Transition was formed to carry out this task. The committee carried out a number of information-gathering and deliberative activities, including holding an interactive workshop in November 2003 on accelerating technology transition. On the basis of this work, which included directed discussions at the workshop, a number of virtual meetings, and a thorough review of existing literature in the field, three specific areas emerged, as follows:
Creating a culture for innovation and rapid technology transition,
Methodologies and approaches, and
Enabling tools and databases.
CREATING A CULTURE FOR INNOVATION AND RAPID TECHNOLOGY TRANSITION
Accelerating the technology transition of new materials and processes is a challenging, long-term endeavor that begins at the conceptual stage of a new material or technology and continues through its
implementation and acceptance. The essence of this lengthy process is communication. Workshop participants consistently described successful technology transition as a long-term dialogue between the creators and the end users of new technologies. Materials and processing technologies present a particular challenge to effective communication, because materials in and of themselves are rarely products that can be directly linked to defense needs. To foster communication, prototypes of components need to be put into the hands of potential customers as early as possible in order to gain them as advocates for the technology. This type of buy-in is essential. An additional and essential factor is a champion with sufficient authority to remove barriers, garner support, and ensure a new technology’s successful implementation and use.
Effective technology transition, involving collaboration among all of these stakeholders, drives an iterative process of development, implementation, and acceptance. Both the technical team and the product users must be part of the end-to-end decision-making process. The successful transition of new technologies depends on the ability of managers to focus on technologies that can be matched to compelling needs. Managers must also work with potential customers to develop an adequate business case. Successfully managing this complex collaborative interaction requires leaders who understand and respect the values, working styles, and goals of different groups and who can also effectively initiate and sustain communication among the stakeholders across all organizational and institutional boundaries.
A central theme of the workshop was the importance of creating a culture that fosters innovation, rapid development, and accelerated technology transition. Success stories from many industry sectors—commercial, sports, and defense—point to similar key elements of such a culture. These elements include flexibility, a willingness to take risks, open communication without regard to hierarchy, a sense of responsibility that replaces unquestioned authority, and a commitment to success that goes beyond functional roles. Creating such a culture has several fundamental implications: individuals must feel empowered to take risks, management must anticipate and plan for failure, and everyone must champion teamwork and collaboration over individual accomplishments. Engineers and scientists responsible for innovation and development must be allowed to experiment, to think freely, and to fail on occasion. To encourage innovation, the dictum that failure is not an option is replaced by the understanding that failure provides lessons learned in an innovative environment.
In an establishment as large and complex as the U.S. military, the adoption and acceptance of a new technology likely depend on the real or perceived impact of that technology on high-level military goals. A particular challenge for the military in trying to accelerate the use of new materials is the challenge of overcoming cultural traits that are associated with hierarchical and rule-bound organizations and that impede technology transition. For example, such a culture may favor traditional defense contractors over smaller companies and start-up enterprises.
In general, an operations infrastructure must be flexible enough to meet the demands of highly collaborative, fast-paced, high-risk projects, and it must be able to accommodate change during the development process. Changing a hierarchical culture may mean decentralizing decision making, simplifying procurement and acquisition processes, reducing budget lead times, providing consistent funding through technology development and maturation, making greater use of off-the-shelf technology, and valuing innovation over short-term economic efficiency. This changing paradigm may also necessitate updating standards and testing procedures to make it easier to introduce new materials.
The potential rewards of making such a cultural change are substantial. Materials have the unique ability to contribute to a wide range of technical objectives, such as increased mobility and survivability, while offering significant capital, operating, and maintenance cost savings. Although initial costs may be higher for an accelerated development path, an overall cost savings and a faster return on investment may be realized. Perhaps even more compelling is that by better matching the development and deployment time frames in the venture-capital industry, the military can leverage dual-use, commercial development and billions of dollars in private equity capital.
The committee finds that there is no single strategy that, if implemented, will accelerate the insertion of new technologies into either commercial or military systems. Instead, it is more likely that the omission of a key element of the many needed will guarantee failure. Having a strong organizational
culture and structure in place is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the successful acceleration of technology transition. Some common characteristics of successful technology transition efforts include the following:
The establishment of Skunk Works-like enterprises—these groups are committed, multidisciplinary teams led by champions who inspire and motivate their teams toward specific goals;
Team determination to make the technology succeed—which may include making the technology profitable and demonstrating to customers that they need the technology;
The use of expanded mechanisms of open and free communication—especially involving the ability to communicate an awareness of problems that will affect process goals; and
The willingness of the champion to take personal risk—such leadership results in the willingness of the organization to take risks at the enterprise level.
Recommendation 1. The Department of Defense (DoD) should endeavor to create a culture that fosters innovation, rapid development, and the accelerated deployment of materials technologies.
Success stories from commercial, sports, and defense industries suggest that the characteristics of such a culture include the following:
Acceptance of risk, anticipation of failure, and plans for alternatives;
A flexible environment with the ability to accommodate change during the development process;
Open communication in all directions without regard to hierarchy;
A widespread sense of responsibility and commitment to success that exceed defined functional roles;
Valuing of innovation over short-term economic efficiency; and
A passionate focus on the end-user's needs.
Evaluating and implementing the following actions will enable the DoD to create a culture that fosters rapid development and breaks down barriers to rapid technology transition:
Introduce flexibility that reduces budget lead times and provides consistent funding during the technology development stage through full maturity,
Make better use of commercial off-the-shelf technology,
Implement shorter and more iterative design and manufacturing processes,
Simplify procurement and acquisition processes,
Update standards and testing procedures to make it easier to introduce new materials and processes, and
Decentralize decision making throughout the process.
Leveraging private equity capital and pursuing dual-use commercial development can also be effective. Investments in materials processes and technology will offer the DoD the opportunity to leverage materials technology for defense systems across all service branches.
METHODOLOGIES AND APPROACHES
Most of the best practices discussed at the Workshop on Accelerating Technology Transition function by altering the risk–reward relationship of the military customer and its suppliers. The primary method of doing so is to work to the desired technology function rather than to predetermined specifications. This can be accomplished by better quantifying the rewards associated with success and by mitigating the risk of failure. The risk–reward relationship for failure or success in military systems was noted as a primary barrier to the insertion of new technologies into military systems.
While several corporate best practices are effective at accelerating technology development and product introduction into the public marketplace, certain identified best practices increased the chances of success and lowered the perceived risk of failure. Risk includes not only personal risk but also technical and business risk. The committee identified three corporate best practices that are effective at modifying the risk–reward balance and thereby accelerating technology development and product introduction into the commercial marketplace.
Best Practice 1:
Developing a Viral Process for Technology Development
One of the successful best practices identified by the committee is that of developing a "viral" process for technology development.1 This process entails quick, iterative development cycles and prototyping of materials and products. The development cycles and prototyping processes must be done in parallel and also in close consultation, if not actual collaboration, with potential customers. One of the primary reasons for successful rapid development in industry is the use of multidisciplinary teams that keep the development going without getting bogged down in any one of its aspects. The key to rapid technology development is to virally incorporate knowledge into the development process and to modify the materials, fabrication processes, and systems as needed. Agile manufacturing processes2 are needed for all stages in materials development—from research to prototyping and pilot production, to full-scale production.
Effective modeling of materials and processes is a critical part of viral development. To accelerate the initial selection of materials, combinatorial and other high-throughput materials research methods show great promise in developing the materials property data needed as input for purposes of differentiating competing materials and processes. Many engineers at the workshop observed that once the selected materials are inserted into fabrication processes, the perceived risk of failure, particularly for critical components, increases with time as complexities are revealed and the demands on technology increase. As components become larger and more complex, two or more iterations are sometimes required before making a finished part. The only effective way to accelerate this process is to use predictive models to redesign fabrication processes. Many modeling tools already exist, but more are needed. A comprehensive suite of materials modeling software and verified data could accelerate the development and insertion of appropriate materials into critical systems.
A tool that is strikingly effective in aiding the insertion of high-performance, multifunctional materials in America’s Cup sailboats and Formula 1 racing cars is system-level software that quantifies how system performance changes with the insertion of new materials in new designs. Such modeling in DoD systems could aid in setting priorities for the development of new materials. These models must reflect the economics of the materials and processes. Traditional cost-accounting models do not utilize
all of these factors. An understanding of the relevant economic factors can help researchers and system developers optimize manufacturing conditions and evaluate the performance of the materials and fabrication systems that seem most economically viable. This optimization of technical performance and economic performance is vital for the successful insertion of new materials.
Best Practice 2:
Increased Reliance on Functional Requirements Rather Than on Specifications
A second successful best practice identified by the committee is that of increasing reliance on functional requirements rather than on specifications. One of the key limitations to the rapid insertion or development of new technology, particularly for the DoD, is the lack of information given to vendors about the relevant functional and technological needs. Instead, strict adherence to detailed but incomplete specifications is expected. The benefits of a functionality approach can be seen in the contrasting business models for Formula 1 race teams and the military aerospace market. Using the team-based approach with parallel development and constant iteration of design cycles, a new product for the Formula 1 market could be produced, tested, and certified for use in approximately 8 months from initial development to volume production. This time frame is in stark contrast to the dramatically longer period for the military aerospace market, even though the systems and components are remarkably similar. The key observed difference is the level of risk that the two industries are willing to take; this level of risk acceptance influences every aspect of the enterprise.
Military specifications have been essential for purposes of certifying that a particular material or system will have an extremely low probability of failure in use. However, for the development of new technologies, specifications reduce the ability to rapidly implement existing knowledge and technologies developed for nonmilitary systems by the different vendors. Having an understanding of the desired functionality, including the fabrication envelope and the use environment, would significantly accelerate finding the right material and the right technology solution, thereby accelerating technology transition. The increased reliance on functionality rather than on specifications can be implemented only by having all stakeholders involved and sharing information.
Best Practice 3:
Developing a Mechanism for Creating Successful Teams
A third successful best practice identified by the committee is that of developing a mechanism for creating successful teams in a sustainable way. The creation of such teams must be independent of the industry and sector, as new products are envisioned. The success of committed, multidisciplinary teams that implement iterative prototyping and work to function rather than to specification was brought up with respect to many different industries and in many different forms throughout the workshop. As these teams operate, if an issue is discovered in the manufacturing processing of a material, this information would then rapidly be transferred to other materials-development processes as well as to the testing and verification processes. Likewise, the solution to an issue that has arisen could emerge from this process. The industry speaks of this overall process as a constant adjustment of tasks through viral cross-functional interaction.
The committee finds that technology incubators are a useful construct for accelerating technology transition. The concept of people having the right technologies, the right team skills, and the right financial support is not new; additionally, all successful transitions need to have the customers as part of the team from the beginning in order to ensure meeting the military’s high performance requirements. The challenge in the case of accelerating technology transition in military systems is that the roles in such an enterprise will be distinctly different from those in the venture-capital world, because the military may be filling all of the roles—i.e., as the venture capitalist, the technology developer, and the customer. Within the military, there may still be conflicting goals, such as minimizing both initial and life-cycle costs.
The creation, management, and interaction of such multidisciplinary teams with the DoD cannot be ad hoc and must be supported at the highest levels, or the teams will likely be unsuccessful.
Adoption of Best Practices
Methods for encouraging movement toward the best practices described above are not obvious. Assessing the performance of any technology transition scheme must be organized such that investments in more successful strategies can be more frequently realized. Methods for assessment must also provide some measure of accountability within the responsible organization, in both industry and government. When performance indicators are used to assess success, the time duration for technology transition from conception to implementation is likely to decrease. It is not clear that implementation of these best practices can overcome what is called the gap between technological invention and acquisition, also known as the valley of death. A number of changes will be needed, including streamlining military acquisition, to allow all of these changes to be implemented.
These three best practices were identified as being critical to such streamlining. While other corporate best practices are also effective at accelerating technology development and product introduction into the commercial marketplace, these three have been shown to increase the chances of success and to lower the perceived risk of failure, including personal, technical, and business risk.
Recommendation 2. The Department of Defense should adopt the following three best practices found in industry for the accelerated transition of new materials and technologies from concept to implementation.
Develop a viral process, one that is infectious and self-propagating, for technology development through the quick, iterative prototyping of materials and products, with free and open communication; agile manufacturing processes; and effective modeling of materials, processes, system performance, and cost;
Work to functional requirements rather than to specifications; and
Develop a flexible mechanism for creating and recreating successful teams as new systems are envisioned.
ENABLING TOOLS AND DATABASES
The well-established success of computational engineering in various disciplines has fostered a rapid adaptation of computation-based methods to materials development in the commercial sector in recent years. Early successes in computational materials engineering provide a clear vision of a path forward to enhance capabilities across national academic, industrial, and government pursuits.3,4
The first demonstrations of computation-based methods for materials development integrated empirical materials models. A new level of capability has been demonstrated very recently in the development and application of more predictive mechanistic numerical models. These capabilities have been nurtured under such federally funded initiatives as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program on Accelerated Insertion of Materials (AIM) and the Air Force program on Materials Engineering for Affordable New Systems (MEANS). Demonstrated abilities include (1) accelerated process optimization at the component level; (2) reducing risk associated with scale-up; (3)
efficient accurate forecasting of property variation to support qualification, with reduced testing, for early adoption; and (4) the active linking of materials models to broader process and property trade-offs in the higher-level system design process, all for the optimal exploitation of new materials capabilities.
Current projects are actively applying the new tools and new approach in the accelerated implementation of materials and processes in both polymer-matrix composites and metallic alloys for aerospace applications. Small businesses have played a vital role in these collaborative efforts, providing databases, tools, and methods, and expanding capabilities to include the initial parametric design of "designer materials," uniquely offering a new level of predictability ideally suited to the accelerated development and qualification process.
Principal challenges and opportunities for the advancement of these capabilities are in the following areas: (1) the wider dissemination of information on current capabilities and achievements; (2) the rapid transformation of the current array of academic computational materials-science capabilities into useful engineering tools; (3) the broader development of necessary fundamental databases; and (4) a major infusion of modern design culture into our academic institutions to provide a pertinent research and education environment.
Recommendation 3. The Office of Science and Technology Policy should lead a national, multiagency initiative in computational materials engineering to address three broad areas: methods and tools, databases, and dissemination and infrastructure.
Methods and tools. A collaboration between academia and industry built on such models as the Accelerated Insertion of Materials (AIM) program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency should focus on the rapid transformation of existing, fundamental materials numerical modeling capabilities into purposeful engineering tools on a pre-competitive basis. The scope of the effort should encompass all classes of materials and the full range of materials design, development, qualification, and life cycle, while integrating economic analysis with materials- and process-selection systems.
Databases. An initiative should focus on building the broad, fundamental databases necessary to support mechanistic numerical modeling of materials processing, structure, and properties. Such databases should span all classes of materials and should present the data in a standardized format. New, fundamental database assessment protocols should explore optimal combinations of efficient experimentation and reliable first-principles calculations.
Dissemination and infrastructure. A dissemination initiative should provide ready access to a Web-based source of pre-competitive databases and freeware tools as well as accurate information on the range of existing, commercial software products and services. Integrated product team-based research collaborations should be deliberately structured so as to firmly establish a modern design culture in academic institutions to provide the necessary, pertinent, research and education environment.