An F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 122 launches off the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jacob G. Kaucher/Released)

DOD believes blockchain can boost 3-D printing at the front

The U.S. military has long seen the potential of additive manufacturing -- the industrial cousin of 3-D printing that can enable the services to produce mil-spec parts in the field.   And now the Department of Defense believes this disruptive technology can be paired with another -- blockchain -- to address intellectual property concerns. 

At a May 12 event hosted by Washington Technology, John Bergin, the business technology officer in DOD's Office of the CIO, pointed to the Navy's aircraft carriers as a prime use case. 

What happens, Bergin asked, when an F-18 on that carrier breaks a pin in its landing gear?  "They need a part, but they don’t have the part on the aircraft carrier," he said. "How do I use additive manufacturing to get there, while still respecting Boeing’s intellectual property rights for that pin?

Blockchain -- the encrypted and distributed ledger system that makes the Bitcoin cryptocurrency possible -- could be the answer, he suggested. 

If DOD's "ecosystem of parts management" can properly incorporate blockchain ledgers, Bergin said, the 3D printers on a carrier could securely log every pin that's produced at sea.  "You can print it, I can pay Boeing for it, and [the Navy] has planes that fly," he said.  "How do I support the warfighter abroad, respecting the intellectual property of the vendors, and do it as a team?  Blockchain is part of that story."

Such a system would also streamline supply chains by allowing the Navy, in this example, to get only the pin it needs, rather than ordering a full landing gear assembly.  This would help both the military and its industry partners, he argued:  "Let’s stop buying the assembly, and let’s start making the parts where we need them.  It reduces your inventory that’s idle, and increases our operational capability at the front."  

There are security and quality assurance challenges in addition to the intellectual property concerns, Bergin said, but he urged contractors work with DOD on those problems.

"This is the opportunity we see for blockchain," he said.  "It’s not about cryptocurrency -- it’s about protecting your IP and enabling the warfighter.  We are very excited about this approach, and we think it’s part of the acquisition front we’re trying to get to."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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