To help make the United States more competitive in world markets, the U.S. optics industry needs new technologies for flexible production of optical components ranging from contact lenses to giant mirrors. America's smaller companies, in particular, find it risky to develop new manufacturing techniques and expensive to implement them. Government-industry-university collaborations in manufacturing technology are needed now, just as they were back in the mid-1980s when the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization of the Department of Energy Department of Defense (DOD) established a new type of manufacturing research center at federally funded facilities. These Manufacturing Operations Development and Integration Laboratories (MODILs) allowed industrial firms with limited resources to perform research and development for new products while providing DOD with affordable, high-tech weaponry components. The MODIL in Oak Ridge (now called the Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center) has become a model for a new Department of Energy (DOE) effort to improve the competitiveness of the U.S. precision machining industry.

Looking Back

The MODIL concept centered around the "concurrent engineering" approach to manufacturing defense systems, specifically for DOD's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Organization. In this approach, raw material suppliers, designers, manufacturing engineers, system integrators, and product users talk to each other early in the product cycle. The SDI goal was to identify potential bottlenecks to introducing a new product into the marketplace and to expedite solutions to these problems.

In 1988 the Optics MODIL was located at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant (in an ORNL division) to develop and "prove" the effectiveness of new manufacturing processes for making optical parts. The Y-12 Plant had already used such processes to fabricate mirrors that sent beams of light from the earth to mirrors on satellites to communicate messages and pictures around the world.

The mission of the Optics MODIL was to develop and validate the manufacture of high-precision telescope components, such as mirrors, windows, lenses, and baffles (optical parts having porous surface textures that keep unwanted light from bouncing, or scattering, onto mirrors) for DOD's SDI ("Star Wars") program. These components were considered fundamental to the Star Wars defense concept because of their ability to assist in the early detection of and defense against missiles launched toward the United States. For example, the Optics MODIL worked on developing better optical mirrors for directing beams of light and particles toward military targets in space. Some mirrors were to be used to guide light from enemy launch sites and missiles in flight to detectors that signal interceptor systems to destroy enemy targets.

As these high risk-high benefit technologies became available, the precision optics community incorporated them into their manufacturing processes. The U.S. military benefited from the increased capabilities established at their suppliers' facilities. The result was a "win-win" situation for both industry and government.

Oak Ridge was a logical site for the Optics MODIL; the extensive experience with precision machining at the Y-12 Plant and the collegial atmosphere of ORNL combined to provide a neutral site where firms could develop technologies while protecting proprietary information. This new government-industry relationship did not come easily, though. When the MODIL concept was introduced, many companies looked at Oak Ridge as competition. Some companies had heard the phrase "we are the government, and we are here to help" too many times! But when the program ended five years later, our industry partners made comments such as ". . . (the Optics MODIL) brought together some of the leading optics engineers in the country and fostered real, rather than guarded, dialogue toward solving some of our mutual production problems" and "(we) found the Optics MODIL to be an important forum for technology transfer, industry capability, and government program directions."

Passing the Torch of Technology

The Optics MODIL management believed that technology transfer could best be achieved as a "contact sport" in which industrial researchers visit the site of the government researchers for hands-on activities. Thus, the Optics MODIL entered into seven cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) with industrial firms. In fact, the Optics MODIL had the highest per capita number of CRADAs in Oak Ridge for a short time.

The MODIL also provided sponsorship for university professors interested in performing engineering research at industrial locations. This on-site activity helped mesh representatives of the industrial and academic communities.

The MODIL sponsored numerous industrial briefings and workshops to bring together various companies and organizations in the optics community. Industrial briefings were held twice a year at various locations around the nation to provide small businesses on limited budgets an opportunity to attend. Between 100 and 150 persons attended--a sizable representation of the precision optics industry. One day of the briefing was devoted to an overview and tour of the host facility, providing an opportunity for members of the optics community to gain insights into the operations of other companies, including their competitors.

Workshops were held as needed to help focus MODIL efforts on "burning issues." By limiting attendance to key decision makers, tangible solutions to industry-defined problems resulted. Problems were solved in such areas as environmental controls, diamond tools, "snap-together" design, and optical scatter measurements.

The workshop on environmental controls was especially helpful to our industrial partners. Precise control of a diamond turning machine's thermal environment is one of the most important factors in fabricating high-accuracy components such as precisely curved mirrors. Temperature variations are detrimental to the final product being machined, just as temperature variations and thermal mismatches make it difficult to unscrew a mayonnaise jar lid after it's been in the refrigerator.

It came to our attention that many of our industry partners did not recognize the importance of temperature control. This problem hit home when investigations into a poorly machined part revealed that a manufacturer's diamond turning machine was located directly under an air conditioning vent.

The Optics MODIL had a workshop to showcase our maunfacturing cells built using off-the-shelf equipment at a materials cost affordable to small business. The cells are designed to control the temperature to within a tenth of a degree, enabling the manufacture of ultraprecise components. The workshop participants took back to their companies information on building manufacturing cells to suit their needs.

One unprecedented workshop on lessons learned was held early in the program. The Optics MODIL wanted to determine the optics industry's capabilities for manufacturing precisely curved, lightweight mirrors. Industry's response ran along the lines of "send us the money and we can make it." Because precision optics were typically made under cost-plus contracts on a best-effort basis, that response was the norm. So the Optics MODIL put industry to the test by requesting mirrors with a defined specification, at a fixed price, with a defined delivery date. The two companies that were awarded the contract worked diligently to produce the ordered pieces. However, both companies delivered mirrors that failed to meet our specification. They had to absorb most of the cost as a result of unexpected overruns, and they were late in delivering the mirrors.

To determine the problems these companies had encountered in making the product, the Optics MODIL sponsored a Lessons Learned Workshop. Incredibly, representatives of the two companies told their competitors what they did wrong (hindsight is 20/20) and what they would do differently the next time. By the beginning of the second day of the workshop, the interactions among attendees were astounding; it was almost like being at a revival. Confessions were made such as "we should not have tried to polish the mirror so early." And support was offered. "Yes, we've made that mistake before," said one attendee, "and this is how we corrected it." This workshop proved that competing firms can work together toward the common goal of improving their collective position against foreign competition.

Because technology transfer was one of the major thrusts, we were innovative and proactive in pursuing effective means of transferring information that would be most beneficial to our industrial and academic partners. Our approach was sometimes to "do first and ask later!" For example, we did not ask permission from our sponsor or DOE for a third party to host a briefing on issues of interest to the optics industry. Instead, we approached companies, universities, and other government laboratories and asked if they were interested. They were more than willing to host an industrial briefing and showcase their facilities. These hosts included, among many others, the universities of Alabama and Arizona, North Carolina State University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology , Hughes, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed.

The Technology

Some technologies employed at the Y-12 Plant for making precisely curved mirrors for lasers have been used for manufacturing optics by the Optics MODIL and its successor, the Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center, which is part of the Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technology. These technologies are described here.

Single-point diamond turning is a computer-controlled machining process developed in the late 1960s at DOE laboratories and first used to make sophisticated mirrors for high-energy laser systems. It uses a gem-quality diamond in a lathe-type action to create a precisely shaped, smooth surface on a part, eliminating the time-consuming, unreliable step of polishing. Thanks to the Rank Pneumo Nanoform 600 machine in Oak Ridge, complex-shaped surfaces can routinely be generated to an accuracy of 1/4 wave (wavelength = 0.633 micrometers) in aluminum, copper, nickel plating, and numerous other materials. To illustrate this machine's precision, consider a typical mirror that is 12.7 centimeters (5 inches) in diameter and has a surface accuracy of 1/4 wave; this accuracy is comparable to limiting the elevation of the highest mountain peaks in the state of Arizona to 0.6 meter (2 feet). Accuracies like that are needed in military satellites deployed in space to detect missiles launched from the earth's surface.

Ductile grinding is a precision method for machining brittle ceramics by shearing material off the surface. Materials such as silicon carbide and sapphire can be machined with minimal subsurface damage. The Optics MODIL worked cooperatively with university and industrial partners to develop an acoustic emission technique to "listen" to the process. When machining parameters are not ideal, cracks and chips form in the surface of the material. The sound of a propagating crack can be detected, just as the cracking of a fine china plate can be heard. The potential benefit to industry of this manufacturing technology is the ability to use acoustic feedback along with machine controls to automatically maintain a more favorable ductile-shearing mode of operation.

Ion beam milling uses ions in gas to shape surfaces. The ions, acting like billiard balls, knock atoms off the surface of a material. Users of this technique can improve a surface to an accuracy of 1/20 wave. This level of precision is equivalent to creating a state of Arizona that has no point higher than 12.7 centimeters (5 inches) above the ground surface!

All three of these manufacturing techniques are available in industry in one form or another. However, the Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center in Oak Ridge is the only facility in the United States that has all three capabilities under one roof. The Oak Ridge facility is unique because it can demonstrate the integration of these manufacturing technologies to produce parts right the first time, eliminating the need for rework or for scrapping a defective part.

A key to integrating these manufacturing techniques is on-process characterization. In industry, an optical component is typically generated on the machine, removed, and then taken to another facility for inspection. If the part does not meet specification (e.g., the shape is not right), it must be remounted on the machine and reworked. This approach is time-consuming, expensive, and not always successful. The Oak Ridge center promotes on-process inspection to verify the accuracy of the part while it is still on the machine, thus improving the manufacturing efficiency and reducing the cost of optics manufacturing.

An example of our support of on-process inspection is the development by one industry partner of a revolutionary tabletop scatterometer that can determine light-scattering properties over wide angles in real time. Applications for this instrument include rapid nondestructive testing of magnetic and optical disks, machined parts, and laser printer drums. The Optics MODIL commonly awarded subcontracts (as in this example) to small and large companies on challenging activities to help industries help themselves by developing new products and processes.

The Personnel

More than 50 people, including a core staff of 18, contributed to the Optics MODIL program over the past five years. The program's well-rounded staff of designers, engineers, scientists, physicists, technicians, and administrative support represented all three sites in Oak Ridge. People often ask the staff, "How did you pull it off?" There is no one-word answer to this question. Effective leadership, a proactive sponsor, a highly motivated staff that was willing to go the extra mile to get things done, and an atmosphere of having fun on the job have been among the top contributing factors to this successful program.

A New Mission

DOE recognizes that the research talent, manufacturing expertise, and fully equipped facility developed by DOD's Optics MODIL program is a national resource that can contribute to the global competitiveness of the precision manufacturing industry. Thus, DOE is funding this activity under a new name. Called the Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center, it is one of the Centers for Manufacturing Technology at the Y-12 Plant. The center has a new and expanded mission. It no longer focuses only on manufacturing processes for optical systems. Instead, its resources are being applied to the many industries that need ultraprecision components, such as the medical, environmental, and electronics enterprises.

The Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center is now a designated DOE user facility; it provides a convenient mechanism for visiting researchers to use our state-of-the-art equipment. The transition from one agency sponsor to another illustrates the government's goal of using resources most effectively to benefit taxpayers.

The center staff is excited about new opportunities as its horizons move beyond optics for defense applications. The center has been working with an environmental firm in Knoxville, Tennessee, that manufactures air quality monitors. This small business is losing market share to a German competitor. Discussions between technical staffs revealed areas for improvement in the design and manufacture of their product. By making a contact through the National Machine Tool Partnership, a multiagency-sponsored assistance program, this firm got an introductory feel for our capabilities. Next, the company came to the center as a "user" to conduct hands-on research. Finally, a CRADA was recently negotiated to bring this effort to closure and help this small business beat out foreign competition!

Another demonstration of our commitment to supporting domestic industry involves an effort with a contact lens manufacturer. The characterization of contact lenses presents many challenges, not only because the product is flimsy and slippery but also because its demand is high. Each lens must be measured for performance (will it correct a wearer's vision as intended?) and appearance (does the lens have scratches?). A cooperative effort investigated methods of automating the contact lens inspection process.

The Ultraprecision Manufacturing Technology Center staff has also worked closely with U.S. suppliers of single-point diamond tools. Many of these U.S. firms are small businesses that are competing with large, well-established foreign companies that have large resources. Because the shape of the tool is instrumental in forming extremely accurate contoured parts, the tool companies needed a method of measuring the tool's roundness within a few millionths of an inch. They also needed a map showing the size and location of roundness errors.

The problem was that users of the tool had to do in-house inspections to determine if the tool met their needs. The users had to machine and inspect a part; if it failed to measure up, it would eventually be scrapped. Unless this situation changed, the U.S. tool suppliers were at risk of losing customers.

We developed a user-friendly technique with an easy-to-read output that verifies the accuracy of the diamond tool edge for the tool industry. Now, the diamond tool supplier can provide data to the tool user that verify the tool's accuracy. Our technique saves the user time and money because in-house acceptance testing is no longer needed.

By working with a number of private companies, we have been able to pinpoint areas for improvement in the design and manufacture of their product. This capability, combined with providing companies access to the center's research facilities, helps to create partnerships that benefit business, the center, and the nation.

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