How to Remake an Industrial Base: BMNT’s CEO Discusses the DoD’s Largest 3D Part Repository & the US Manufacturing Landscape

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Overall, the US manufacturing sector hasn’t changed much in the last couple of years, but it has certainly started to move in the direction of change. Moreover, these early signs of transformation have been initiated specifically with the aim of putting the US manufacturing base in a position to transform rapidly over the next decade.

For those working in this highly specialized space where public policy, manufacturing technologies, and organizational behavior intersect, the major takeaway from the last couple of years seems to be that the work that lies ahead will be a far greater task than what anyone outside that intersection seems to realize.

I’ve encountered that sentiment over and over again this year, and it was clarified to me most recently when I interviewed Peter Newell, the CEO of consultancy BMNT. Newell was the director of the (now-defunct) US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) between 2010 and 2013, and an enlisted National Guardsman and active duty officer for over 30 years. Among other things, BMNT — which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary — worked with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to spur the creation of the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) largest repository of 3D part files.

Advanced manufacturing is a world where everyone is constantly focused on precise quantitative measurements and hyper-technical esoterica. It is notable, then, that Newell says the main problem that BMNT knows how to solve is simplifying highly complex realities, such that they can actually be explained across all of the different organizations concerned with those realities:

“One of the things I discovered running the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force was that we did a really poor job of extracting emergent problems from the battlefield, putting them in a language that other people understand, and simultaneously getting that language to match the commercial issues that people are trying to solve. It’s two levels of translation: first you have to get it in plain English, then you have to find the same problems in the commercial world and get them to match. But once you do that, it’s a very powerful tool that helps you recruit companies, investors and other people to work with the government on actually solving a problem, because then it becomes a natural act. It makes sense to do it.

“Innovation is a sociological challenge, not a tech problem. I largely explain what we do at BMNT by saying we’re anthropologists. We work with the culture and the sociology around how to move tech and policy and things like that to make real changes.”

Peter Newell in Iraq in 2009. Image courtesy of US Army

This is precisely the skill-set that made BMNT the right partner for DLA, when the latter embarked on its 2019 project to create a digital repository of 3D part files. BMNT and DLA’s Technology Accelerator (TA) created a streamlined contracting process based on BMNT’s signature Hacking for X (H4X) Innovation Pipeline.

BMNT describes the H4X Innovation Pipeline as an end-to-end framework to generate a steady flow of actionable and mission-focused ideas for testing and implementation. The new contracting process utilizes the Other Transaction Authority (OTA), which allows a host of government agencies to make purchases outside broader Federal Acquisition Regulations.

Although OTAs have existed since the 1950s, a change occurred in 2016, as described in a special report on the topic from National Defense Magazine:

“Section 815, Amendments to Other Transaction Authority, of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016…brought down several barriers for participating in the contracts. Now anyone, not just nontraditional contractors, can compete. And perhaps the most important change, program managers have the option of moving from prototype to production contracts as long as they demonstrate that there was a competition among vendors to see which prototype worked best.”

Once the new contracting process was in place, and based on market research from BMNT, the DLA determined that it wanted to source and combine two technological capabilities, 3D scanning and geometric search algorithms, to create the 3D part repository. The companies that DLA awarded the contracts to, scanner manufacturer Direct Dimensions and software provider Physna, created “the largest known repository of 3D part files in the DoD” within just 15 days:

“We spent a lot of time looking for the right problem,” explained Newell, “and then we started looking for the right companies. We call it a technical terrain walk, where we’ll take a government problem with the government folks and go visit companies — not talking about the technology yet, just about the problem we’re trying to solve. That process helps us get the problem defined correctly in the eyes of the companies we would ask to solve it. Once you get that right, you publish the request for proposals from companies, and start looking at the technologies involved in the proposals submitted.

“In this case, I think we started with seven companies, boiled it down to two, and determined that if we got those two companies to work together we could solve the problem. As soon as they started working together, we went from a couple of prototypes to about 7,000 very quickly — we were truly surprised by how quickly that scale progressed.”

In addition to demonstrating the DLA’s ability to work together with multiple private entities to rapidly solve a complex technical problem, the end result, of course, could ultimately contribute to accelerating and reducing the cost of the parts qualification process involved in additive manufacturing (AM):

“The conventional certification process, although mandatory and important, becomes an obstacle you can’t get through because the process is built on technology that was designed 40 or 50 years ago. It hasn’t been updated to keep up with the way technological change happens, whether you’re making parts for an airplane, a submarine, or anything else the government needs. What we found in many cases was that the very high end of certification requirements — a turbo fan blade for an F35 engine, for instance, where the end-product has to be perfect — was also being applied to, say, designing a bolt to hold an antenna mount onto a tank. It’s a one- standard- fits- all mentality, and quite frankly, that’s not necessary. But we get caught up on the compliance thing. e do compliance for the sake of compliance, and aim for perfect compliance rather than accept that there’s a lower level compliance necessary for certain things. Instead, we should focus energy on getting compliant with the things that are most important to be compliant about.”

The ability to incorporate experiential knowledge of government bureaucracy, technical standards, and the forefront of technological change is what makes a company like BMNT an indispensable part of the long-term push to remake US advanced manufacturing:

“As you think about trying to get a new technology deployed at scale, there’s always going to be a series of bottlenecks that get in the way. Part of that equation is trying to change supply chains — it is simply horrific. But, if you can break the bottlenecks in supply chains, suddenly an emerging technology becomes easier, cheaper, faster, and more sustainable to use. It used to be the government that was responsible for inventing all of those game-changing things that would break the bottlenecks.

“That’s not the case anymore. Most of it is coming from the commercial world, and it’s hard for people in the government to know where to look, who to ask, and above all, keep up with the sheer speed at which these new companies come into being. So that’s where a company like BMNT comes in, because we are the perfect ombudsman for everyone else. We’re paying attention to what the government is trying to do, but at the same time, we’re paying attention to the opportunities that are being created by relevant industries . We’re looking all the way down to where the investment dollars are going, talking to the investors, talking to the companies, and finding ways to get them introduced into the right places in the government at the early stage, where they can start to form those early- stage partnerships, which can have the most impact on what the government is trying to do. And then we double down on the government side of things to make sure that they don’t do things that ruin that relationship, because the government of course is full of bureaucracy. So we’re also busting the bureaucracy inside the government to make all of the necessary changes possible.”

Now that the process of rebuilding the domestic US manufacturing base has started to get off of the ground, what are the areas of the economy most urgently in need of attention? Considering the extent to which BMNT’s effectiveness depends on ensuring that the right people are in the right job, it’s unsurprising that Newell homed in on workforce development:

“If there is one single greatest problem in the US it’s the lack of a workforce to do the manufacturing we need to do. The workforce gap is so wide it’s almost incomprehensible: we’re talking millions of jobs. Going back to my early days of working with the [Department of Energy’s] Advanced Manufacturing Office [author’s note: now the Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO)], we primarily worked on workforce problems. One of our early tests was, can we create a pipeline of veterans leaving service to enter advanced manufacturing jobs, by creating programs within community colleges that were tied to national programs? W e accomplished that in California. We were able to work with the state and local governments to create a hybrid education platform, where someone would leave service, spend the summer in classes, then starting in fall, spend two days a week in class and three days working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NASA, etc.

“The problem we ran into was that in a two-year program, people were only finishing the first year before they were hired, and then everything became on the job training. W orkforce development is one of the big issues BMNT is studying right now — how do we take the model we succeeded with in California and apply it at the national level, through programs for kids at the high school level, via manufacturing jobs that are important to the national defense industrial base?”

Along these lines, Newell emphasized that, while it’s encouraging to see policy actions like the Biden administration’s Council on Supply Chain Resilience, the necessary piece to the puzzle is determining what practical actions can realistically be taken, and then using the power of the federal government to make sure that those actions lead to institutional change:

“What are you going to do with what you learn? It’s great to have a council that produces documents. But then there have to be mechanisms in place to take the stuff that’s produced and say, show me which of these problems need to be solved now, and build me the ecosystem of people necessary to solve the problems. And we need to make sure we can hold those people accountable for actually doing it.”

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of BMNT

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