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DoD Competition to Launch New Manufacturing Institute

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President Barack Obama has announced an upcoming Defense Department-sponsored competition that will provide the awardee up to $110 million in federal funds to launch an Institute for Manufacturing Innovation, or IMI, whose work involves photonics -- the science and engineering applications of light.

The Integrated Photonics IMI is the fourth DoD-led manufacturing institute to be announced since the pilot project was launched in August 2012.

In photonics, light is used to capture and display images, convert energy, and detect, transmit, store and process information. Integrated photonics is an important innovation that simplifies optical system design, reduces the size of components and power used, and improves reliability.

Critical future technology

Through its ability to carry vast quantities of data and its application to information systems, harnessing this light represents a critical future technology.

Beginning in early November, when DoD officials release a broad agency announcement for the competition, the department will collect proposals from teams of nonprofit organizations, universities and private companies to head the institute. The $110 million available over five years must be matched by at least $110 million in nonfederal commitments.

“Our U.S. industrial base serves at least two major national security objectives. It is the engine that drives our economy and it equips our soldiers, sailors and airmen,” said Andre Gudger, DoD’s acting director of manufacturing and industrial base policy, told DoD News. “So it's critically important that we maintain our technological advantage within the U.S. industrial base and these institutes help us maintain that competitiveness in important technology areas, such as integrated photonics.”

The award for the Integrated Photonics IMI should be announced early next summer, and the institute will have five years to become self-sustaining.

A tri-service Defense Department subject-matter-expert team, augmented by civilian agency personnel, will conduct the IMI proposal evaluation and follow-on execution phase and will continue on to support the IMI’s technical advisory board.

“Our strategy is for all these institutes to be of great value to not only the Department of Defense, but to other federal agencies, industry and the nation as a whole,” explained Adele Ratcliff, director of manufacturing technology in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy.

Federal partners

In addition to private companies of all sizes, universities and community colleges, the new IMI will have federal partners such as the Commerce and Energy departments, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation.

Beginning in fiscal year 2016, according to a DoD fact sheet, the National Science Foundation will encourage researchers to submit grant requests for integrated photonics research in hopes of leveraging the improved photonics ecosystem.

“Photonics makes good sense as an IMI for the DoD and our nation,” Gudger said. “The conditions were right.

Commercial potential, defense requirement

“One objective of the IMIs is to help break down entry barriers for promising technologies,” Ratcliff continued. “For photonics technology you have a large commercial potential, a defense requirement, and a growing but fragmented industry that lacks standards and advanced manufacturing processes to be able to move from the laboratory environment to full-scale commercial applications.”

The initial pilot IMI announced in August 2012 focuses on additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. Branded as “America Makes,” this Youngstown, Ohio-based institute is a consortium of more than 100 manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations.

The next two institutes announced in early 2014 were a broad consortium of businesses and universities with a hub in Detroit that focuses on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, and an equally broad and diverse Chicago-headquartered consortium focusing on digital manufacturing and design innovation technologies.

The newest integrated photonics IMI will focus on developing an end-to-end photonics ecosystem in the United States, including domestic foundry access, integrated design tools, automated packaging, assembly and test, and workforce development.

Photonics revolution

Activities under the IMI also will allow universities and small-to-medium enterprises to participate in the integrated photonics revolution.

DoD officials cited the following as impacts enabled by integrated photonics:

-- Next-generation information processing, communications and data storage enabled by integrated photonics will lower the costs of broadband access and the efficiency of long-haul, metropolitan and local-area networks.

-- Integrated photonics use in green data centers will enable 100 Gb/s speeds with less power per bit than current 10 Gb/s solutions, resulting in millions of dollars per year in energy savings.

-- Significant reductions in size, weight and power enabled by photonics-electronics integration will be critical for embedded computing systems for mobile platforms, image processing and remote sensing.

-- Integrated photonics will enable a several-fold increase in the dynamic range of detectors, resulting in the ability to "see through" complex media such as human tissue to significantly improve detection for some diseases.

-- Advances in integrated photonics will lead to significant improvements in the ability to see through dust clouds of landing helicopters, avoiding crash landings and saving warfighter lives.

“DoD is in the process of selecting another technical focus area for a fifth DoD-led IMI, to be announced in the coming months,” Ratcliff said.

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)

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