On Point: Q&A With John Burer
John Burer founded ACMI Group, which focuses on manufacturing innovation and domestic supply chain resiliency. ACMI Federal recently received a $75 million contract from the Department of Defense (DoD) Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization Directorate to develop a munitions campus.
What are the challenges to regaining the technology edge in critical sectors?
Agencies need stable supply chains for mission-critical systems and a dynamic support mechanism for delivering breakthrough technologies. Ideally, the free market delivers on this challenge, but sometimes we need government and industry collaboration. For future security and prosperity, we must help companies bridge the Valley of Death. Connecting companies in critical industries to investors, infrastructure, talent and partnerships strengthens supply chains and nurtures new technologies.
How can the country take advantage of government innovation investments?
The government is a major investor in early-stage research, mainly through grant programs. These investments jump-started nascent innovations, from laser technology in the 1960s to, for example, clean energy and artificial intelligence. However, the government is not, and should not be, in the business of scaling up and commercializing new technologies. Research and development (R&D) organizations, universities and national/federal laboratories are equally not well suited for the job and rapidly fall outside of their scope upon moving to low-rate initial production as the precursor for full-scale commercialization.
How can the nation maximize innovative capabilities delivery?
Through coordinated, diligent use of the private sector, which is better positioned and equipped to transition innovative technologies across the Valley of Death and deliver cost-effective products at commercial scale. Federal programs cannot duplicate the advantages of a dynamic market economy. The commercial sector has fewer restrictions and more freedom to operate and can rapidly respond to new information. At the same time, healthy competition drives down costs and spurs innovation, rewarding adaptable, efficient and creative organizations. The market has models for capital investment to support promising companies and more mature technologies—and to do so efficiently.
Some proposed innovative approaches for munitions include modernized, modularized manufacturing capabilities providing novel, less capital-intensive batch processes; utilizing domestically sourced feedstocks to produce energetics and their precursors; identifying composites and energetics printing technologies for munitions production; and delivering emerging carbon fiber
printing and lithography for energetics processes.
What are the benefits of innovation clusters?
One way to deliver novel technologies and allow the military to reposition its technical superiority is by using the proven campus model, sometimes called industry innovation districts. Geographically grouping companies in an industry—for batteries or other mission-critical technologies, for example—allows them to collaborate and to share resources. Shared infrastructure for R&D, testing, prototyping and small-scale manufacturing lowers costs for nascent companies and accelerates development. Also, an ecosystem with diverse yet complementary capabilities facilitates collaboration and partnerships.
Tell us about ACMI’s proposed model.
We founded ACMI to help bridge government needs and private enterprise’s willingness to invest. Through this approach, we can rebuild America’s industrial base in targeted, critical areas. The most important pillar, ACMI Federal, enhances manufacturing capabilities in industries supporting national security, such as munitions, hypersonic systems and chemicals. Leveraging the free market is the most efficient, reliable and sustainable way to address the priorities of the DoD, Homeland Security Department, Energy Department, Defense Logistics Agency and others.
How will this approach evolve?
Beyond munitions, the ACMI model is well-positioned for other manufacturing sectors, such as energy storage and hypersonic and space systems. Harnessing this approach can transform the manufacturing landscape by encouraging re-shoring of production for essential supply chain elements and advancing innovation in the industries that will drive the economy for years and decades. It is the right time to invest in U.S. manufacturing. By bridging this gap between federal needs and the market economy, we can revitalize industries, maintain our innovation advantage and secure a robust and resilient supply chain.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and concision.