Lockheed, GE, and ASTRO America Push for 3D Printing Small Business Fund at Pentagon

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Last year, representatives from five of the most established US manufacturing brands met with President Biden and additive manufacturing (AM) industry experts in Hamilton, OH, to announce the launch of the Biden administration’s AM Forward Initiative. Now, the head of the US Small Business Administration (SBA), Isabella Casillas Guzman, has met with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks at the Pentagon to discuss the voluntary manufacturing compact, along with other related issues.

Joining Guzman and Hicks at the Pentagon were individuals from founding AM Forward members Lockheed Martin and GE, as well as from AM industry stakeholder Stifel Financial and nonprofit Applied Science & Technology Research Organization (ASTRO) America. ASTRO America was instrumental to the launch of AM Forward, which, in addition to Lockheed and GE Aerospace, also counts Siemens Energy, RTX, and Honeywell as founders. Boeing and Northrop Grumman joined the compact in August, 2022.

The purpose of the compact is to help remove barriers to adoption preventing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the US manufacturing sector from incorporating AM technologies into their supply chains. So far, the agreement includes commitments like reaching target percentages for the number of 3D printed parts that each participating corporation sources from US SMEs. For instance, one characteristic detail of the compact reads, “Siemens Energy will target to purchase 20-40% of total externally sourced AM parts and services from US-based suppliers and partners. It will engage 10-20 US SME suppliers to help improve their AM capability.”

President Biden at the launch of AM Forward, image courtesy of ASTRO America

In a press release about the Pentagon meeting, Guzman said, “By partnering with DoD and leveraging SBA’s long-stranding public-private investment partnerships through the [Small Business Investment Company] program, we will accelerate manufacturing innovation in the US industrial base by enabling access to capital and expertise networks capable of addressing the biggest challenges faced by the small business suppliers critical to US national security.”

Hicks said, “The AM Forward Initiative, the SBA’s SBIC program, and the establishment of DoD’s Office of Strategic Capital (OSC) tell a compelling story about the power of partnerships to ensure that America’s small and medium-sized businesses continue to lead the world in innovation and critical technologies.”

AM Forward meeting at the Pentagon on August 1, 2023. Image courtesy of DoD via ASTRO America

After August 1, the way in which those targets could be reached now seems much clearer. Two days after the meeting, on August 3, ASTRO America announced that the focus of the discussion was the possibility of establishing a Small Business Investment Fund (SBIF) specifically to support the success of AM Forward.

In a press release about the potential AM Forward SBIF, the president of ASTRO, Neal Orringer, said, “Recognizing the fragility in America’s supply chains, Lockheed Martin and GE are taking the lead in forming a public-private partnership to help provide small businesses with access to capital for [AM] that will help re-onshore American manufacturing and provide economic development and jobs. If approved by the government to move forward, this fund will be a lifeline to help transition small businesses into 21st century manufacturing.”

A particularly significant quote about the meeting came from the Deputy Director of the National Economic Council (NEC), Joelle Gamble: “We see AM Forward as a model for other industries — a way for large companies to improve the business case for their suppliers to adopt new technologies, and a way for USG to coordinate our programs to make implementation faster and easier.”

That last quote reinforces a point I made a few months ago in a post about a Biden administration document on critical emerging technologies. I argued that the absence of a direct reference to AM from that policy statement seemed to indicate that AM is now already farther ahead in its technical readiness relative to other emerging technologies, and that this suggested AM’s progress would be utilized as a model for the rest of Industry 4.0: “Thus, the latest policy statement is likely not premised on the idea that AM is no longer important. Oppositely, it is much more likely that it is premised on the idea that AM has established the successful model of standardization for all of the other emerging technologies.”

It now appears that this is indeed the case, which would only heighten the significance of an SBIF that is directly relevant to the AM sector, assuming that this idea succeeds. Considering the timing, with the Biden administration’s Made in America executive order and China’s new export restrictions on drone equipment, it is hard to imagine that the SBIF won’t happen.

Moreover, its successful establishment would also help pave the way for further increased activity in support of AM Forward goals, and the reshoring of US manufacturing supply chains, more generally. The scale-up of the AM sector may have just hit a major inflection point.

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