DARPA’s factory of the future looks like open source development

Ars Technica – DARPA Adaptive Vehicle Make project may reinvent manufacturing itself, and seed the workforce with a new generation of engineers who can “compile” innovations into new inventions without having to be tied to a manufacturing plant.

The Department of Defence is on a trend that is not far off from a tongue-in-cheek statement made by former Lockheed Martin president Norman Augustine—one of “Augustine’s Laws”—that by 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase one aircraft.

Adaptive Vehicle Mak seeks to reduce the “product cycle” of defense systems from an average of almost 10 years down to two years—similar to the design cycle for new integrated circuits. To do that, DARPA is funding the development of software tools, called META, that will allow engineers to design, prototype and test systems collaboratively before they are ever built.

DARPA released the final solicitation (92 pages) for IFAB (Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits), a computer-driven flexible manufacturing capability that will allow for distributed, software-driven manufacturing of systems in “foundries” that can be quickly reconfigured to new tasks, using technologies like computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machine tools and “additive manufacturing” (otherwise known as 3D printing) to scale up rapidly from prototype to full production runs. The goal of the IFAB program, Wiedenman said, is “to build the factory of the future, using software that can rapidly reconfigure a factory for new products with no need to retool to build something new.”

The auto industry has been pushing forward the idea of digital design and prototyping for over a decade, linking in suppliers with master computer-aided design files and doing supercomputer-powered crash tests. But that has all been within the confines of closed product lifecycle management systems. DARPA’s AVM projects seek to create a model-based design approach that would allow engineers to collaborate on designs of new vehicles like developers working on a software project, using a set of tools that allow them to do “correct by construction design,” Wiedenman said.

Correct by construction is an engineering approach used in software engineering and integrated circuit design that uses mathematical models to check the impact each component of a system has on the whole, ensuring that the design falls within certain constraints. DARPA is funding the development of engineering “meta-tools” that would allow engineers to contribute components to a design that would be checked against a set of models, checking for potential unintended integration issues.

The designs coming out of the META tools will then get transmitted to IFAB foundries, where software will generate processes for machines and human workers to follow. The IFAB can communicate back suggested changes to the designers providing information about manufacturing limitations and ways to modify the design to reduce cost. Because the process can be decoupled from any one manufacturing plant, Wiedenman said, the IFAB “doesn’t have to exist under one roof”—it can be an “amalgamation of capabilities, connected by software.”

The first test of IFAB will be to produce a prototype for the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle, a reboot of the Corps’ failed Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program. DARPA chose the ACV program because “It was important for us to do a real product,” Wiedenman explained, “and show we could build a system of appropriate complexity—not a toaster.”

Community-source vehicles

In parallel with the ACV effort Eremenko said DARPA is also launching an “open-source” vehicle program called VehicleForge.mil, which will test what he called a “democratization of the innovation process ” made possible by the META tools. “The goal is to democratize innovation by several orders of magnitude beyond what we’re doing with the ACV,” Eremenko said, in a similar way to how open source has driven innovation in software.

“In the open source software world, anybody can go in and modify the design, and check it in, and the community can recompile it and see what the impact is,” Eremenko explained. “That process has proven itself and has yielded very high quality software.” The barrier to doing open source with physical complex systems, he said, is that while it’s easy enough to set up a shared “drawing tree,” there’s been no way to get an understanding of the impact of design changes as there is when software gets compiled. “Our META tools function as a compiler,” he said—providing a way to assess those changes as they are checked in against models.

The META tools are still in development, so it may be a year or so before VehicleForge.mil gets off the ground. But when it does, DARPA plans to launch a series of design challenges to use the open-source approach to design the Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG).


META: The ultimate goal of the META program is to dramatically improve the existing systems engineering, integration, and testing process for defense systems. META is not predicated on one particular alternative approach, metric, technique or tool. Broadly speaking, however, it aims to develop model-based design methods for cyber-physical systems far more complex and heterogeneous than those to which such methods are applied today; to combine these methods with a rigorous deployment of hierarchical abstractions throughout the system architecture; to optimize system design with respect to an observable, quantitative measure of complexity for the entire cyber-physical systems; and to apply probabilistic formal methods to the system verification problem, thereby dramatically reducing the need for expensive real-world testing and design iteration. 

The top-level technical objectives of the META program are as follows:

• Develop a practical, observable metric of complexity for cyber-physical systems to enable cyber-vs-physical implementation trades and to improve parametrization of cost and schedule;

• Develop a quantitative metric of adaptability associated with a given system architecture that can support trade-offs between adaptability, complexity, performance, cost, schedule, risk, and other system attributes;

• Develop a structured design flow employing hierarchical abstraction and model-based composition of electromechanical and software components;

• Develop a component and manufacturing model library for a given airborne or ground vehicle systems domain through extensive characterization of desirable and spurious interactions, dynamics, and properties of all constituent components down to the numbered part level; develop context models to reflect various operational environments;

• Develop a verification flow that generates probabilistic “certificates of correctness” for the entire cyber-physical system based on stochastic formal methods, scaling linearly with problem size;

• Apply the above framework and toolset to design, manufacture, integrate, and verify a ground vehicle of substantial complexity 5X faster than with a conventional design/build/test approach.

The model library objective above is addressed by the Component, Context, and Manufacturing Model Library (C2M2L; pronounced “camel”) effort. C2M2L seeks to develop domain-specific models needed to enable the design, verification, and fabrication of the FANG infantry fighting vehicle using the META, iFAB, and vehicleforge.mil infrastructure. C2M2L will be executed in phases such that C2M2L-1 focuses on the drivetrain and mobility subsystems, C2M2L-2 focuses on the chassis and survivability subsystems, and C2M2L-3 addresses all subsystem domains.


iFAB: The Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits (iFAB) program looks to lay the groundwork for the development of a foundry-style manufacturing capability—taking as input a verified system design specified in an appropriate metalanguage—capable of rapid reconfiguration to accommodate a wide range of design variability and specifically targeted at the fabrication of military ground vehicles. The principal objective of iFAB—coupled with META—is to enable substantial compression of the time required to go from idea to product through a shift in the product value chain for defense systems from “little m” manufacturing (i.e., fabrication) to the other elements of “big M” Manufacturing (i.e., design, customization, after-market support, etc.). The iFAB vision is to move away from wrapping a capital-intensive manufacturing facility around a single defense product, and toward the creation of a flexible, programmable, potentially distributed production capability able to accommodate a wide range of systems and system variants with extremely rapid reconfiguration timescales. The specific goals of the iFAB program are to rapidly design and configure manufacturing capabilities to support the fabrication of a wide array of infantry fighting vehicle models and variants.


FANG: The Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) program seeks to develop the infrastructure for and conduct a series of design challenges intended to precipitate open source design for a next-generation infantry fighting vehicle.

As part of the FANG effort, vehicleforge.mil is focused on generating an open source development collaboration environment and website for the creation of large, complex, cyber-electro-mechanical systems by numerous unaffiliated designers—with the goal of democratizing the design innovation process by engaging several orders of magnitude more talent than the current industry model. The initial phase of the effort will last 12 months and culminate in the operational deployment of vehicleforge.mil. The development of complex software systems has benefitted significantly from the ability to leverage crowd-sourced innovation in the form of open source code development. vehicleforge.mil aims to significantly expand open source collaborative development for defense systems by employing a general representation language—being developed under the META program—that is rich enough to describe a broad range of cyber-electro-mechanical systems, yet formal enough that the system can be “compiled” or verified in some manner when a design change is made to some element or aspect of it.

The FANG program will apply META, iFAB, and vehicleforge.mil capabilities to a series of design challenges of increasing complexity, seeking to leverage fab-less design, foundry-style manufacturing, and a crowd-sourced innovation model and culminating in a complete design and fabrication of a new heavy and potentially amphibious infantry fighting vehicle in the span of one year.

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