3D Printing

What the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute Is and What I Wish It Was

I’m pleased that we are taking steps to strengthen American manufacturing by launching a new manufacturing institute in Ohio. This institute will help make sure that the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow take root not in places like China or India, but right here in the United States of America.  That’s how we’ll put more people back to work and build an economy that lasts.

When President Barack Obama announced plans to create a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), I was probably among the many 3D printing enthusiasts in the US overjoyed by the idea.  I love 3D printing, I’ve invested in 3D printing and I thought that a national embrace of the technology would mean that I could have an affordable 3D printer in my home sooner, rather than later.  After I heard about the network and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), the foundation created to lead the network, I put the thing in the back of my mind, content with the idea that there was a federally funded establishment out there dedicated to one of my favorite interests.

At the same time that I am a 3D printing enthusiast, I am a peace enthusiast, self-righteously believing that solutions to the world’s conflicts do not need to rely on violence.  In my own life, I’ve found that a relatively peaceful attitude has led to my own happiness.  When I’m nice to those around me, those around me are usually nice back – classic golden rule stuff.  And, being a peaceful person, disinterested in attaining wealth, fame and power, is one of the things that led me to my future wife.  This brilliant, beautiful and hilarious fiancé of mine is in the same boat, refraining from conflict whenever possible.  So, when I discovered who the major players were behind the foundation of and control of NAMII, I became disheartened.

It’s through the military that a good deal of our technology is created.  And this is as true with additive manufacturing as it was with ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet.  I don’t know why I didn’t notice it when I first heard Barack Obama’s announcement, but the head governmental organization behind the search for companies and institutions to make up NNMI was the Department of Defense, formerly known as the War Department until 1947.  With the DoD in charge of doling out the public’s $30 million for 3D printing, it’s no surprise that the organization eventually chosen to lead the new institute was the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), a nonprofit dedicated to creating parts for the various armed forces whose “NCDMM Consortium initiative is designed to provide technical support and guidance to smaller manufacturing businesses across the nation so they can better support DoD supply chain requirements,” according to the organization’s website.  Consequently, the directors of NAMII are also the directors of the NCDMM.  Among other things, the NCDMM is dedicated to enhancing the production efficiency of the U.S. Army’s missiles and munitions:

Missile_MunitionsWe are able to draw on our experience and leverage our Alliance Partners and Manufacturing Consortium to help our customers meet and exceed the needs of the Army. Our innovations have increased machining productivity by 100 percent and improved processing times by 80 percent.

Whether we’re sustaining current missiles and munitions platforms or developing new, advanced processes, the NCDMM remains committed to furthering the advancement and implementation of new manufacturing technologies to support the warfighter.

We are proud to have provided solutions for many missile- and munitions-based systems, including the M228 Training Grenades, M249 Machine Gun, Extended Area Protection and Survivability (EAPS), the 30mm Air Burst Projectile, and the Advanced Targeting Pod, just to name a few.

They also play a part in the US’s controversial drone program, which has been responsible for the deaths of between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan, including 474-881 civilians and 176 children, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  It’s speculated that the drone strikes may even increase the threat of terrorism, with negative opinions of the US growing in Pakistan and the drone attacks providing a possible rationale for further terrorist recruitment. To an organization such as the NCDMM, however, manufacturing the parts for drones is only a matter of business:

UAV_global_hawkIn recent years, the use of UAVs has escalated as a means of providing greater battlefield awareness and reducing the risk of loss of or damage to manned aircraft. As UAV usage has increased, so too has the demand for more reliable UAVs that offer longer service life between maintenance intervals.

NCDMM assists in this ongoing effort by providing expertise in identifying alternative materials and manufacturing methods to produce replacement components that possess higher performance characteristics — often at a reduced unit cost. We also aid in the evaluation of wear characteristics, correction of failure modes, and the development of next-generation technologies for UAVs.

From inception to execution, the NNMI has been headed up by major weapons manufacturers.  The proposal for what was to become the NNMI was written up by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) Steering Committee, a committee made up of both university presidents, such as MIT’s Susan Hockfield, and the CEOs of the following major corporations:

  • Dow Chemical (famously responsible for the production of napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and production of the hydrogen bomb at the Rocky Flats Plant in Denver, Colorado, Dow Chemical is also the creator of 96 of the US’s Superfund toxic waste sites)
  • Northrop Grumman (the major arms manufacturer that was named both Forbes’s company of the year in 2002 and also the 62nd largest air polluter responsible for 52 superfund toxic waste sites in the US)
  • Honeywell (producer of land mines and nuclear bombs)
  • Procter and Gamble
  • Intel (military supplier of computer hardware, software, and communications networks)
  • Caterpillar (producer of tanks, as well as US-government subsidized bulldozers for the Israeli army used to destroy Palestinian homes in the US-backed Israeli occupied West Bank)
  • Allegheny Technologies (provider of specialty metals for armor and weaponry)
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Johnson & Johnson

In trying to find military affiliations for Procter & Gamble, Ford, and Johnson & Johnson, I discovered that all of the aforementioned corporations, aside from Intel and Allegheny, are members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.  The USGLC is the suspicious and influential network of corporations, NGOs, and consultants that lobby for the increase of the U.S. government’s International Affairs Budget in order to fund U.S. efforts in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

And, with the choice of the NCDMM to head the additive manufacturing institute, we see partnerships with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin at the forefront of the Institute’s direction.  The Institute will provide a direct line of careers for young people as they take 3D printing classes at their community college, transfer to a four-year and major in Additive Technology Engineering, get an internship at some company that’s part of the Institute’s network where they’ll design ways to manufacture parts live during wartime.  A soldier stationed at one of the many US bases all over the world will need a highly specialized piece of plastic to repair a complex piece of intelligence equipment I’ve never heard of and, thanks to NAMII, will have a 3D printer right on the battlefield to print it out.  Another recapitulation of the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned about over 50 years ago: the majority of US society geared to ensure a constant war-based economy, heads of state directly linked to corporations that derive a good deal of profit through the production of wartime technology.  In other words, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute is just like everything else.  So what’s the big deal?

I guess that, in my head, I had originally envisioned this 3D printing institute populated by all of my favoruite smaller 3D printing players, like a big empty warehouse where MakerBot would be working alongside Ultrabot, Deezmaker, and Formlabs to create anything they wanted. The ultimate hackerspace.  I saw RepRap builders training the youth of Youngston, Ohio – where NAMII is located – to become young Makers themselves, who would undertake the task of developing the first completely self-replicating 3D printer.  They’d solicit the help of Filabot to recycle old plastic and turn it into the material needed to build these UltraRepRaps. Eventually, of course, they’d find ways to make the UltraRepRap out of entirely recycled parts so that its net impact on the environment was 0. And, maybe there’d be some Youngston State University students working on 3D bioprinters, the type used by Organovo, and creating 3D-printed organs, fabricating lungs for those suffering from the bleak disease of pulmonary fibrosis.  Ohio, then, would become the 3D printing capital of the world, a utopia where young dreamers could go to see the miracle of the human spirit in action.  It would be a Willy Wonka factory of pure imagination, crystal light reflecting off of every surface and resonating throughout the soul and mind of anyone who came within a twenty mile radius of Youngston, Ohio.  Perhaps the United States would even become this beacon of peace, love and understanding – the type that it always pretends to be – that people would look to for solutions to the problems causing limitless suffering across the globe… instead of what it is: a country run by a government intent on expansion and controlling the world’s major resources, thus, imposing problems that cause limitless suffering across the globe.

So, while I am for a national 3D printing institute, I don’t know if I am in favour of the chosen partners for the network. On NAMII’s site, major players in the field of 3D printing, like 3D Systems and Autodesk, are featured partners alongside major weapons manufacturers, but, sadly, there’s a hole where the underdog manufacturers should be.  I e-mailed the institute to ask if they were considering the inclusion of smaller 3D printing organizations like Ohio’s Columbus Idea Foundry, but have yet to receive a response.  And, at this current point in the game, it’s unlikely that small Maker groups will be able to afford the minimum $15K to become a member of the institute as their funds are directed towards self-sustainability.  This leads one to the bleak conclusion that the use of public money in the United States is not democratic. But, as Noam Chomsky explains in “Human intelligence and the environment”, it never has been:

Take, say, computers. The first computers were around 1952, but they were practically the size of this room, with vacuum tubes blowing up and paper all over the place, I was at MIT when this was going on. You couldn’t do anything with them. It was all funded by the government, mostly by the Pentagon, in fact, almost entirely by the Pentagon. Through the 1950s, it was possible to reduce the size and you could get it to look like a big bunch of filing cabinets. Some of the lead engineers in Lincoln Labs, an MIT lab which was one of the main centers for development, pulled out and formed the first private computer company, DEC, which for a long time kind of was the main one. Meanwhile, IBM was in there learning how to shift from punch cards to electronic computers on taxpayer funding, and they were able to produce a big computer, the world’s fastest computer, in the early 1960s. But nobody could buy these computers. They were way too expensive. So the government bought them, meaning you bought them. Procurement is one of the major techniques of corporate subsidy. In fact, I think the first computer that actually went on the market was probably around 1978. That’s about twenty-five years after they were developed. The Internet is about the same. And then Bill Gates gets rich. But the basic work was done with government support under Pentagon cover. The same with most of these things — virtually the entire IT revolution. The Internet was in public hands for, I think, about thirty years before it was privatized.

So that’s industrial policy. We don’t call it that. Was it democratic? No more democratic than China. People in the 1950s weren’t asked, “Do you want your taxes to go to the development of computers so maybe your grandson can have an iPod, or do you want your taxes to go into health, education, and decent communities?” Nobody was told that. What they were told was, “The Russians are coming, so we have to have a huge military budget. So therefore we have to put the money into this. And maybe your grandchild will have an iPod.” It’s as undemocratic as the Chinese system is, and it goes way back. We just don’t give it that name. It doesn’t have to be done undemocratically, but to do it democratically requires cultural changes, understanding. On the computers, maybe it was the wrong decision. Maybe they should have done other things, make a more decent life. Maybe it was the right decision. But on things like green technology and sustainable energy, I don’t think there’s much question what’s the right decision, if you get people to understand it and accept it. And that has great barriers…

So, I began to wonder what it would look like if the public had a say in what the government did with taxpayer money.  My fiancé often suggests something like, say, taxpayers should be able to determine where 50% of their taxes go.  On April 15 of every year, you could vote where your money goes so that, if you’re in favor of military spending, you could fill out that box and your tax dollars would go to defense.  If you’d prefer better public schools and healthcare, you could check those boxes, and so on. 50% of your dollars gets split up any way you’d like and the rest gets passed out by our officials, the privileged elite with the supposed expertise for controlling a society.  If that were the case, as most polls indicate, you’d surely see a lot less tax payer money going towards defense and more going towards healthcare and education.  That could be the only way for the US public to have a say in where their tax money goes.

There might be another way, though – something that resembles the collective action of the Web 2.0 era.  Like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous.  Something that resembles the workers’ movements of the first Great Depression.  Of course, it’s not likely, but, what if makers and small-time 3D printer companies could get together to form their own organization? You know, what if Makerbot, along with the folks at Make, Crashspace in Santa Monica, and the Columbus Idea Foundry could pool their resources and join NAMII? Maybe this new umbrella group of independent makers would be called MegaBot.  Together, they could start a Kickstarter to become a member of NAMII.  MegaBot would have to get at least $15k to become a Supporting Member of NAMII, like Kent State University or Northern Illinois University.  $50k and Full Membership would get MegaBot a seat on the NAMII governance board, like Allegheny Technologies and Lockheed Martin.  And $200k would make MegaBot a Lead Member, right alongside 3D Systems and Northrop Grumman.  MegaBot could become the sole dissenting voice at every NAMII meeting, always naysaying the production of new drone parts and funding wars of aggression.  MegaBot, the collective of independent Makers, would be a voice of peace.  Perhaps, a beacon to the whole world of what positive collective action can really look like, like the U.S. was meant to be.

Of course, the likelihood that NAMII would even accept MegaBot’s membership is probably out of the realm of possibility, but there’s no telling what the formation of MegaBot could do, NAMII membership or not.  And maybe, then, MegaBot could team up with Occupy, Anonymous, the workers’ unions, and whoever else is out there, to form UltraMegaBot, some truly democratic organization to match the power of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalitions, the Northrop Grummans, and the Lockheed Martins of the world.