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Pentagon seeks to join 3-D printing revolution

Photopolymer printing can print three-dimensional figures, as displayed at a conference in Ohio.

Photopolymer printing can print three-dimensional figures, as displayed at a conference in Ohio. // Amy Sancetta/AP

The original story misstated the amount of money to be spent in 2012. The figure is $18.8 million. The story has been corrected.

The Pentagon will fund an institute for agencies, companies and academics to advance three-dimensional printing techniques, with the eventual goal of cheaper and faster manufacturing of aerospace and defense parts.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing uses special machines to make solid objects, layer by layer, from a digital file. Designers use 3-D printers to create cheap prototypes without needing to turn to an assembly line; hobbyists and tinkerers build do-it-yourself projects with the technology. Now the Pentagon wants to capitalize on 3-D printers to shave the costs of assembly tools.

The agency seeks to launch a $60 million 3-D printing research and educational program, documents show. Defense expects to fund $30 million from fiscal 2012 through 2014. The bulk of the funding -- $18.8 million -- is expected to be forked over in fiscal 2012. The 3-D printing initiative will offer a proof of concept on how to build a network of 14 institutes to spur ideas on improving domestic manufacturing, as part of a $1 billion White House initiative called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The program will be managed by various federal agencies, including Defense, the Energy Department, and the National Science Foundation.

The Pentagon is soliciting nonprofit organizations and universities to launch the pilot. The institution should house additive manufacturing experts, have a business plan to ensure it is financially sustainable, and be able to protect the patent rights of inventors. A proposer’s day for the pilot program will be held May 16. Proposals are due on June 14.

“Due to the advantages of additive manufacturing, considerable capability improvements and manufacturing cycle time reductions can be realized for new platforms,” the solicitation notes. “In addition, parts needed for DoD legacy systems can have a significant cost and cycle time savings because assembly tools are not required.”

The Pentagon’s participation in the 3-D printing revolution would give additional boost to an industry that is expected to grow to $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020, according to research group Wohlers Associates.

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