In an era where the introduction of new technologies, led by those that are digital at their core, is accelerating, an unprecedented opportunity to transform the way in which systems are designed, manufactured and sustained exists for those who can harness and integrate these technologies quickly. An emerging digital manufacturing infrastructure, implementing Industry 4.0 technologies, is already showing promise for increasing American competitiveness by delivering unprecedented agility; simultaneously reducing costs while increasing production rates and quality. Concurrently, the war fighter is demanding an acceleration in the speed in which new capabilities are delivered. Hence, the speed at which technology is changing, coupled with the speed in which new war fighting capabilities are needed, could drive untenable investment requirements without radically changing the way in which systems are designed, manufactured, and maintained.

The accelerated introduction of new technologies is a global phenomenon that stands to level the war fighting playing field between nations. While manufacturing went global some time ago, the defense industry has also increased its dependence on domestic and international commercial innovations and markets. These factors are continuing to dramatically alter the defense industrial base. Globalized manufacturing also means the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign sources for manufactured products such as critical chemicals, components made from rare earth elements, and microelectronics. This dependence not only presents risks in assured supply, but also increases threats from counterfeit or compromised components entering the supply chain, which could ultimately lead to mission failure. The coronavirus pandemic has only accentuated fragility in the domestic supply chain as disruptions in international transport and the precipitous fall in certain market segments have significantly stressed the industrial base. Perhaps most importantly, long-term decoupling of manufacturing from product design through globalization stands to stifle innovation and, ultimately, the ability to design new systems.

“For the Department of the Air Force’s organic manufacturing base, budgetary pressures have presently pushed large[1]scale modernization beyond reach”

For the Department of the Air Force’s organic manufacturing base, budgetary pressures have presently pushed large-scale modernization beyond reach. While there has long been a recognition that widespread implementation of automation and digital tools could reduce costs and increase platform availability, to date the types of manufacturing transformation seen within the private aerospace industry have not translated to the depots at scale.

Among the Services, the Department of the Air Force has uniquely organized its Manufacturing Technology expertise into one organization within the Air Force Research Laboratory, providing the largest, single concentration of manufacturing subject matter expertise in DoD. In response to the challenges of globalization and opportunities presented by digitally-based technologies, the Air Force’s Manufacturing Technology Program, recently restructure edits strategy and investments to address these realities in order to provide transformational manufacturing capability for the war fighter and domestic aerospace industrial base. The program is now concentrating its efforts on the most challenging manufacturing challenges facing the department including building the foundation for a hypersonics industrial base, addressing systems for networked communication, command and control, capitalizing on digital manufacturing advances, and supporting the department’s acquisition and sustainment programs in producibility.

General Charles Q. Brown’s (Chief of Staff of the Air Force) recent charge to the US Air Force to “accelerate change or lose” perfectly captures the essence contained within the National Defense Strategy and Air Force Science and Technology 2030 strategy. For manufacturing technology acceleration, this translates to realizing transformation through integration--integration of information, analysis, requirements, and technology. However, a mobilization of the defense industrial base will be needed to deliver the pervasive, complex, and capital-intensive development and integration of new manufacturing technologies.