Defense Secretary Ash Carter today announced that DoD is partnering with an 89-member consortium to establish a new manufacturing innovation institute focused on revolutionary fibers and textiles.
Speaking this morning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Carter said that Advanced Functional Fabrics of America is a competitively selected group of companies, universities, non-profits, research organizations and startup incubators organized by MIT.
“This is a pioneering field combining fibers and yarns with … flexible integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells, electronic sensors and other capabilities to create fabrics and cloths that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color and much more,” the secretary added.
The department is making a $75 million investment that has been matched more than three times over with more than $240 million dollars in contributions from public- and private-sector partners, he said.
Revolutionary fibers and textiles have enormous potential for the defense mission, Carter added, noting that lightweight sensors woven into the nylon of parachutes will be able to catch small tears that might otherwise expand in midair and risk paratroopers’ lives.
Uniforms with electronics embedded in their fibers will detect potential chemical and radiological agents, help power networked devices that troops carry into the field and know if a wounded service member needs an anti-bacterial bandage, he said. Tents whose fabrics generate and store their own power and regulate the temperature inside will reduce fuel consumption in the field.
“The reality is that … we don’t know all the advances this new technology will make possible,” Carter said, “that’s the remarkable thing about innovation, and it’s another reason why America and America’s military must get there first.”
In the commercial world, such technical textiles will fuel the drive toward wearables. He added.
Pushing the Envelope
Running shoes as lightweight as socks will sense impact load for every step, he said, new fibers will strengthen walls and floors in buildings and other structures, first responders will wear ultralight firefighting gear that is more protective against the hottest flames, and washable featherweight sensors embedded in clothing will offer a clearer picture of health and fitness.
To stay ahead of the world’s growing and diverse challenges, Carter said the department is investing aggressively in innovation.
“We’re pushing the envelope with research into new technologies like robotics, biotech, cyber defense, electronic warfare and hypersonic engines that can fly over five times the speed of sound,” he said.
The department is building on-ramps and off-ramps so technical talent can flow in and out of the Pentagon, Carter added, “so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of national defense … and so our military and civilian technologists and the innovative defense industry that already supports us can interact in new ways with the entire innovative ecosystem.”
DoD also is developing new partnerships with innovative private-sector and technology communities in places like Boston and Silicon Valley, Austin and Seattle, and other hubs of unrivalled U.S. innovation, the secretary said.
President Barack Obama has established seven other manufacturing innovation institutes over the past four years and DoD has helped lead five of them, Carter said, in areas like 3-D printing, lightweight metals, integrated photonics, digital manufacturing and design and flexible hybrid electronics.
“This will ensure that the innovations needed to develop, manufacture and commercialize these cutting-edge materials will happen right here in America,” he added.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)