Defense IT

DOD, Silicon Valley to partner on flexible electronics

Ashton Carter Silicon Valley

Carter announces the flexible hybrid electronics initiative at Moffett Field.

Two words: Flexible electronics.

That’s the first target technology for Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s much-touted collaboration with the Silicon Valley, as part of the Obama administration’s ongoing effort to improve U.S. manufacturing.

And it’s more than just the Silicon Valley. Carter’s announcement Friday of the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics involves a consortium of 162 companies, universities, and non-profits led by the FlexTech Alliance, which is backed by companies such as Apple, Boeing and Lockheed Martin and universities such as Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The flexible electronics initiative, which will be managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, is set to get $171 million over five years, including $75 million from the Defense Department and $90 million from industry, academia and local governments, according to a DOD announcement.

A focus of the initiative, announced Friday at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., is to improve U.S. manufacturing, particularly with regard to 3D printing, and although it follows Carter’s attention-getting call in April to enlist the Silicon Valley into partnership with DOD, it also is part of the Obama Administration’s ongoing National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, announced in 2012. The institute is the seventh of nine launched under the administration’s program, and the fifth of six to be run by DOD. The Air Force Materiel Command announced plans for the institute in a Broad Agency Announcement issued in December 2014. 

Flexible electronics hold a lot of promise for the military, as sensors on vehicles or clothing, health monitors, treatment systems and any number of other possibilities, Carter said in announcing the initiative. “And the reality is,” he added, “that we don’t know” all of the possibilities, which is why the pubic/private partnership, of the kind that helped produce the Internet, GPS and other breakthrough, he said. 3D printing will do a lot toward expanding the possibilities.

Carter noted that other countries such as China and Russia are modernizing their forces and trying to catch up to the United States technologically, saying it was important that DOD “get there first.”

Military researchers already have been exploring flexible technologies, such the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Soft Exosuit and an inflatable robotic arm that served as the inspiration for a key character in the movie “Big Hero 6.” The Army, in another example, is experimenting with ways to print antennas onto helmets and sensors into clothing.

By partnering with Silicon valley and other technology companies, as well as with non-profits and university research labs, DOD is counting on both accelerating the development of military technologies and creating commercial opportunities, as well.

After making the announcement, Carter convened the inaugural roundtable of Silicon Valley leaders at the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental, or DIUx at Moffett field, the Pentagon’s first permanent outreach office in the area, where technically skilled service personnel will collaborate with tech industry representatives.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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