If the Pentagon wants to get serious about fostering an innovation-friendly climate, it has to do more than establish a beachhead in Silicon Valley
by DAN WARD
I recently toured eight college campuses with my daughter, a high school junior. In addition to being impressed by the quality of the dining hall offerings, I was struck by the lively makerspaces found on every engineering school.
These small-scale production facilities were well-equipped with powerful design software, as well as advanced CNC routers and 3-D printers, tools which did not exist when I was an Air Force ROTC cadet studying engineering during the late Stone Age.
But the most impressive thing was not the hardware and software. No, the most impressive thing was the part where the tour guide said, “This is open to all students.”
To be sure, the equipment was fully integrated into the curriculum of various engineering classes, but makerspace use was not restricted to formal coursework. Anyone with an idea they wanted to explore was welcome to use the facility after receiving the appropriate safety instructions.
On every campus, these makerspaces provided an open, inviting place where students could congregate and collaborate on creative projects, building prototypes and testing their performance.
Along the way they could ask questions and share ideas with classmates and faculty alike. They could experiment and innovate. That’s a powerful formula for learning in an academic environment. It’s also a model the Defense Department should immediately adopt, and I do mean immediately.
Right now it’s easier for an ROTC cadet to translate ideas into hardware than for a lieutenant or captain on active duty to do so. Upon commissioning, newly-minted officers immediately lose access to the tools and capabilities they had as students and cadets.
This is a huge step backward — and it makes innovation harder than it needs to be.
Fortunately, it’s relatively simple and inexpensive to remedy this. All the military needs to do is establish makerspaces on bases. The good news is this has already begun.
Last year, the U.S. Navy collaborated with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to establish a facility called the Fab Lab at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Facility in Norfolk, Virginia.
It’s the first makerspace to be located on a Navy base, and as the Fab Lab project officer Lt. Todd Coursey explained in an interview with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the facility’s goal is to provide “advanced digital-fabrication training and tools so that Navy personnel can develop innovations to help with ship maintenance and overall operations.”
There are plans afoot to establish mobile Fab Labs at other naval facilities in California, Florida and North Carolina.
This is all related to Pres. Barack Obama’s 2014 Nation of Makers initiative, which aims to make 3D printers, laser cutters and desktop machine tools more accessible to students, entrepreneurs and citizens on a large scale.
With the Navy leading the way and the president’s support, there really is no excuse for delay. Every military base ought to provide access to these powerful, low-cost production tools, not because it’s cool and exciting and fun, but because it unlocks currently under-used innovative capabilities that are already present in the workforce.
Plus, I’m pretty sure none of the other services want to be outclassed by the Navy when it comes to innovation. Service pride is at stake here, so let’s get moving.
In all sincerity, establishing makerspaces on bases would convey an important message to the workforce. It would show that innovation is not just something that happens in Silicon Valley or in academic institutions. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
An open, inviting makerspace would be an important enabler for experimentation and innovation. In addition to providing design tools and software in a sandbox environment, makerspaces create opportunities for networking, mentoring, and collaboration. And that’s where the real magic happens.
Makerspaces aren’t free, but they’re not exactly expensive or difficult to set up either. They can — and should! — be built on a small budget. The Navy has already established a precedent, and the commander-in-chief is behind it.
There really is no reason to delay. The only question now is who will step up and lead the charge to make it happen.
Dan Ward, a retired lieutenant colonel, served in the U.S. Air Force for more than two decades before launching Dan Ward Consulting LLC. He is the author of The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse and F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. He holds three engineering degrees, was awarded a bronze star, and is a cybersecurity fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior associate fellow at the British Institute for Statecraft.
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