Prototypes can be found just about anywhere you find innovation. That’s certainly been the case with the military and defence industries. Even when the powers-that-be have resisted using prototypes, they keep demonstrating their value.
Prototypes can present a two-edged sword
In the defence industry, prototypes have had a contentious history. Contractors have resisted competitive prototyping because they can spend huge amounts of money and not recoup their investment. The Defense industry itself is resistant to prototypes because they’re seen as increasing development costs. This is despite studies showing that product development benefits greatly from early prototyping.
CNC Machine Prototyping in the Defense Industry
The latest US Department of Defense Prototyping Guidebook discusses four specific scenarios where prototyping is especially beneficial.
- Rapid Learning utilizes the “Test-Analyze-Fix-Test” (TAFT) approach to early development. CNC Machining lends itself to this philosophy, which focuses on developing specific features or functions rather than the entire device. The ability to modify the code which CNC machines use to produce the prototypes means tweaking a design for incremental improvements is quick. CNC machining is a natural fit to this approach.
- Accelerated Demonstration is concerned with showing the operability of new technologies, concepts, or systems. Rather than focusing on an entire fighter jet, an accelerated demonstration prototype might serve as proof of concept for a new type of sensor on the jet. Again, CNC machining is often behind these individual components or subsystems. The fast turnaround for machining means these components and concepts can be demonstrated at considerable savings of time and money.
- Rapid Deployment may not always be planned, but it does happen. In the defence industry context, rapid deployment refers to a prototype being so successful at addressing an issue in the field that it’s left in the field. This possibility is one of the reasons CNC machining is often the best choice for prototyping technology. CNC machined parts are usually produced from the same material that will be used for the finished product, and built to the same tolerances, so performance won’t be compromised by construction methods. Not all prototypes can boast that.
- “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” is a system of testing (usually) individual component prototypes to determine how and how quickly they fail. The idea is to use the cheapest and simplest version of the design. If the component is ultimate to be built via CNC machining, these rudimentary models invariably come from the same CAM files and rely on CNC machining themselves
Testing the function to failure, then modifying the design has met with resistance in the defence industry. The idea of “failing” sounds counter to progress, despite the fact that the technique provides for fast development with the failure of the cheapest possible components.
Defence industry prototyping is often limited to later stages in product development. This comes in part from concerns voiced by defence contractors. It also stems from the “fear of failure” mentioned above. The General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued a report finding that the Department of Defense has become increasingly risk averse, and this aversion is affecting research and development. They are undertaking steps to improve this situation, including increasing the use of prototyping. CNC machine shops like Ben Machine are well positioned to support this increased use of prototyping in the defence industry.