The Next Industrial Revolution?

October 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

I’ve spent the past week working on my admissions essay to the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), which is supposed to be about challenges facing tomorrow’s practitioners of air, space, and cyberspace power.  I am focusing on the challenge of building an organization agile enough to adapt to a wide spectrum of threats in a dynamic, fast-changing world.  Agility is hard for any large organization.  The Air Force has been slow to adapt to revolutionary change, such as learning and institutionalizing COIN, transitioning to enormous ISR and RPA requirements, and adopting Internet and mobile technology.

Let me share a small illustration of how far the DOD, with its cumbersome overregulation, lags behind the rest of the world: I was recently issued an iPad as part of a modernization effort for flight publications.  I am not allowed to install software updates or apps, use the camera, or even connect it to the Internet.  Because going online is strictly forbidden I cannot use it to check e-mail, receive or file flight plans, check the weather or NOTAMS, file post-mission paperwork, or do anything else that a pilot might be expected to do.  All it’s good for is reading government-issued publications.  Needless to say, this paperweight has never left its box, and I will continue to use my personal iPad until I’m ordered not to.

What worries me is not my ability to use a government-issued iPad; that is a small gripe.  What worries me is the prospect that the DOD will get farther and farther behind as technological progress accelerates.  We are years behind in embracing mobile technology, which is probably the most ubiquitous technology on the planet.  The biggest revolution in airpower in the last few decades was the transition to remotely-piloted aircraft, a change that has been agonizing for the Air Force.  As I wrote my SAASS essay I tried to envision what future revolutions might be coming.  What changes will we need to adapt to–and quickly–if we are to maintain our edge?

I see a few possibilities in the long run, like nanotechnology/miniaturization, or biological engineering and biological-technological interfaces.  Cyber is already here, but comparatively few people truly grasp its significance; we are in for a rude awakening sooner or later.  But there is one more revolution underway that Air Force leaders should be paying attention to: 3D printing, DIY manufacturing, and the overall concept of the “internet of things.”  The implications are innumerable–for the entire global economy.  To cite just one defense-related example, imagine how much it would (or SHOULD) transform our logistics system if we could print aircraft or vehicle parts on demand.  Instead of identifying and prepositioning crucial parts or making provisions to ship them when required, what if we could deploy units with 3D printers and raw materials to generate their own parts?  That is a revolution, and it’s one that could easily be overlooked because it’s so not sexy… if we can’t get iPads right, how will we possibly get logistics reform right?

As I was pondering this technology and its implications, this video and associated article from Wired magazine passed through my inbox.  It’s a good primer on the upcoming manufacturing revolution.  The author’s book about this revolution will be released tomorrow.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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