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AFRL/RX: A National Asset

 

From its inception in 1917 and through its entire 100-year history, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate has been an invaluable national asset. Like a financial asset, it’s important to have money in the bank in case you need it, but even more important are the dividends paid by that asset day after day.

The talent, passion and experience of the dedicated RX staff; the capabilities and the uniqueness of the RX facilities; the close physical mixing of basic in-house research, contracted materials development and transition, and systems support; and the unique RX vision, leadership and culture are all “money in the bank.” The dividends paid by this capability are the dozens of banner technologies conceived, inspired, developed and transitioned by RX over the past 100 years. These major materials breakthroughs have not only successfully defended the United States through two world wars and numerous other conflicts, but they have also made major contributions to the economic strength of our country, ensuring that America has retained leadership as the most innovative and successful industrial country in the world.

Expertise. Subject-matter experts throughout the directorate cover a vast range of materials science, from the development and characterization of new materials to the investigation of aging or failing materials, to the efficient production of materials to better meet warfighter needs. Because of this exceptional scientific and engineering expertise, RX stands as a leader in many areas, including high-temperature structural materials, materials and processes rules and tools, directed energy materials, systems support, and Integrated Computational Materials Science and Engineering. Because of the directorate’s unique capabilities and expert personnel, RX is often sought by outside organizations to contribute expertise and technical direction for collaborative efforts or to solve urgent warfighter needs.

An F-35A makes a night flight in 2013. AFRL/RX developed the materials that made the f-35 possible, from it engine and structural components, to its low-observable materials and coatings. Lockheed Martin photograph by Tom Reynolds

An F-35A makes a night flight in 2013. AFRL/RX developed the materials that made the f-35 possible, from it engine and structural components, to its low-observable materials and coatings. Lockheed Martin photograph by Tom Reynolds

“The unique ecosystem that exists in RX in terms of expertise across different materials, not only established, but also evolving materials, is truly unmatched. So, it truly is a national resource,” said Dr. Morley Stone, AFRL Chief Technology Officer and former RX Hardened Materials Branch Chief (2006-2007).

The human capital within RX has always been one of the directorate’s greatest assets, so to ensure a continuing legacy of expertise, RX engages in an active mentoring program that leverages the knowledge of the senior professionals and instills that expertise in the next generation of researchers.

RX Enterprise Learning Officer Heather Marshall said the mentoring program helps achieve that goal.

“Our mentoring program provides a personalized opportunity for this growth and development, while building professional relationships,” said Marshall. “These relationships span well beyond the transfer of technical knowledge and expertise; they allow our mentees to receive personalized feedback and encouragement, while furthering their interpersonal and communication skills. Our mentors, in turn, reap many of these same rewards as they develop the next generation in RX.”

Julia Ward (left), a student attending Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., and Chelsea Marcum, a Ph.D. student attending the University of Dayton, process silk cocoons at the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate's Biological Materials Lab. The silk fibroin obtained from the cocoons is used in making biocompatible thin films to embed nanoparticles and other materials made using synthetic biology approaches. (Air Force photo by Bryan Ripple)

Julia Ward (left), a student attending Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., and Chelsea Marcum, a Ph.D. student attending the University of Dayton, process silk cocoons at the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s Biological Materials Lab. The silk fibroin obtained from the cocoons is used in making biocompatible thin films to embed nanoparticles and other materials made using synthetic biology approaches. (Air Force photo by Bryan Ripple)

Breadth of experience. While most U.S. advanced research labs doing classified work for the government find it difficult to find new, qualified U.S. citizens with Ph.D.s in the needed science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) specialties, RX has more qualified applicants than it can hire, according to Stone and RX Chief Scientist Dr. Tim Bunning. Both credit the level of research being conducted, the facilities available, and the mentoring offered within the directorate for drawing an abundance of qualified researchers into RX.

“Most of AFRL’s directorates have labs of one type or another. What distinguishes RX is we are the most pervasive of any of the directorates and have more labs than the others, covering an extensive breadth of R&D,” Bunning said. “In part, that is because we are earlier in the food chain – not an integrating directorate, but providing new ideas to all the others. Some of our labs are a bit more fundamental, perhaps academic, than the others.”

Stone said he hopes this unique research environment contributes to the wide array of expertise RX continues to cultivate.

“I want [RX] to be in the center of our materials research and expect them to continue to be our premier science organization internally, but I also want RX to continue to be the source of organizational swagger,” Stone said. “That is, the place where people know they are peers with the best in the world and can go out and interact with their professional colleagues knowing they are second best to no one, which breaks the mold of working in a government lab ‘because you couldn’t get a real job in industry or tenure in academia.’”

Midwave-infrared laser radiation is important for many scientific, medical, and military applications, including spectroscopic diagnostics and surgery. This picture is of a laser cavity set up to generate high-power continuous-wave midwave-infrared radiation, starting from a commercial high-power laser. (AFRL image)

Midwave-infrared laser radiation is important for many scientific, medical, and military applications, including spectroscopic diagnostics and surgery. This picture is of a laser cavity set up to generate high-power continuous-wave midwave-infrared radiation, starting from a commercial high-power laser. (AFRL image)

RX comprises experts from a wide variety of scientific specialties and from diverse professional and personal backgrounds. Many of the researchers within RX have spent their entire career with the Air Force, while others joined RX from academia, industry, the military, or other governmental research entities. This diversity of experience creates a wide base of knowledge as well as professional networks that can prove beneficial for future collaborative endeavors.

Former RX Chief Scientist Wade Adams (1996-2002) notes that the directorate has grown its breadth of experience by bringing in these good people and growing them professionally within the organization.

“Bringing in world-class people – as full-time RX employees; military researchers assigned to RX, either full-time or temporarily; scientists and engineers brought in on a temporary basis to help solve problems for which RX does not have sufficient in-house capability – and later giving them the opportunity to continue in leadership roles – has been a powerful option for the directorate. It also has made it possible for RX to stay abreast with or even ahead of the technology explosion of the past few decades.”

 

Uniqueness. An organization with solid and wide-reaching collaborative relationships with industry, academia, and other governmental organizations, RX stands in a unique position to draw from an extensive base of knowledge and skill sets. RX brings together a vast range of materials science expertise into one ecosystem that includes both established and evolving materials. The directorate also includes the entire life cycle of materials and manufacturing research, from basic materials science to manufacturing to sustainment. Finally, the organic efforts in RX span in-house research, externally contracted R&D, and systems support. Most other organizations separate these different roles. Academia is physically separated from organizations with an operational mission, and most industries have either eliminated in-house R&D or have this work sequestered at separate facilities. In RX, these roles all live and work in the same facility, and the different parts of the R&D spectrum are often addressed by the same researchers. These characteristics make RX truly unique among research organizations.

Additionally, RX brings together top-notch experts and world-class facilities, some of which are one of a kind. Among these facilities are the Refractive Index Characterization Laboratory, 3D Materials Characterization Laboratory, High Energy Diffraction Microscopy Test Frame, Nondestructive Systems Support Facility, Special Test and Research Lab, Polymer and Character Synthesis, Functional Additive Manufacturing, Microscopy, Laser Hardened Materials Evaluation Lab, and several coating and erosion test facilities, including the Particle Erosion Test facility and the Supersonic Rain Erosion facility.

RX is also engaged in a number of unique collaborative research and data-sharing endeavors that allow scientists and engineers to engage and build on existing research. Among these efforts are the Materials Characterization Facility’s Remote Collaboratory, a virtually linked microscopy capability; and the Integrated Collaborative Environment, a scientific data platform enabling the collection, recording, and archiving of test data. Additionally, RX was a leader in the establishment of the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a cooperative agreement between industry, academia, and government to share knowledge and resources to advance flexible hybrid electronics technologies.

NextFlex, the newly-established Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute will help enable a new class of stretchable, conformal devices that can add greater utility to existing products and make possible new tools and technologies. The institute is managed technically by AFRL/RX. (U.S. Air Force photo/James Deneault)

NextFlex, the newly-established Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute will help enable a new class of stretchable, conformal devices that can add greater utility to existing products and make possible new tools and technologies. The institute is managed technically by AFRL/RX. (U.S. Air Force photo/James Deneault)

Perhaps the most important factor that makes RX unique, however, is the nearly 1,000 people working within the directorate. Coming from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, the scientists and engineers, as well as the support staff, bring with them a solid knowledge base and connections throughout the government, industry, and academia. A spirit of community and cooperation pervades the directorate, and extends far beyond. The people of RX embrace the value of working cooperatively with experts within and outside the directorate to leverage and share expertise to achieve world-class results.

Dr. Dave Walker, former RX Director (2006-2008), stated, “The Air Force depends on the directorate to provide the insight and understanding to build advanced systems. There are other places that can do that, in pieces and parts, but bringing it all together in one place for air and space systems is what makes RX an asset.”

Approach. A big part of what makes RX so effective in its mission is the deliberate thought and care that goes into choosing projects and allocating funding in a way that sets a positive direction for the directorate.

Most projects within RX fall under three different categories: 6.1 funding is basic research, which encompasses fundamental development efforts similar to what may be seen in a high-end university laboratory. 6.2 funding is applied research, which takes the results of 6.1 basic research and builds it to a higher level of understanding, by testing in different environments. Finally, 6.3 research is advanced technology development, which focuses on the development of a product that is capable of implementation in a fielded system.

(Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Photo by Angel DelCueto)

F-22 and F-35 Fly Together during the UK’s 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Photo by Angel DelCueto)

To determine which and to what extent projects are funded, RX leadership conducts an annual “Buy Plan” to review the directorate investment plan and prepare for the next budget execution cycle. During this meeting, the executive group reviews the RX investment plan and identifies issues and opportunities to be addressed in the next fiscal year. At the conclusion of this process, the directorate moves into the next year with a clear direction as to which technologies will be prioritized, along with an understanding of associated challenges and execution strategies.

According to Dr. Vincent J. Russo, former RX Director (1988-1996), while the allocation of funding changes from time to time, the basic approach stays mostly the same. He said the director listens to ideas, then meets with a board composed of senior division representatives, where the projects are prioritized. The goal is to fund as many projects as possible based on an understanding of Air Force requirements and what the scientists and engineers felt they could accomplish toward those requirements. Long-term projects could be established that would span three to five years, ensuring a constant stream of research and development for projects deemed of the greatest necessity to the warfighter.

Adams said that the guiding principle for an organization such as RX is having a clear mission and the people to perform it. He said this is a combination that gives RX “an extraordinary aura about it. You can’t attract good people without a well-defined mission, and you can’t do the mission without the right people. Do both and you will succeed. To me, we have a clear mission of being the materials experts for the Air Force, and we attract and work hard to keep the best people to do that mission.”

The combination of relatively consistent funding, research decisions made by those closest to the labs, and a stable, highly qualified workforce are critical to the success of RX’s work for the Air Force, the future of aerospace, and the directorate’s standing as a national asset, according to AFRL and directorate leaders, past and present.

Innovation. In the eyes of many former directorate personnel, RX’s long and diverse history of innovation solidly establishes it as a national asset. Former RX Chief Engineer Bob Rapson (2008-2013) and Principal Materials Engineer and Team Lead Dr. Jeff Calcaterra both identify the Systems Support Division’s field investigations and quick-response efforts as examples of this innovative spirit. Often given less than 30 days to investigate, re-create, analyze, and report on accidents or failures, the materials integrity teams are required to think on their feet and work in close coordination to arrive at solutions that benefit safety investigation boards, airframers, and the Air Force as a whole.

“You could say our systems support function essentially is what started the lab. There were three branches in that organization: physical testing, liaison, and chemical. So not only do we trace our roots back to 1917, but those core functions are still part of what we do,” said Calcaterra.

Calcaterra went on to say that the rapid-response demands of his group’s mission drives the need for innovation.

“When the U-2 [reconnaissance aircraft] crashed in California [in 2016], we were given 30 days to figure out what happened, per the Air Force safety process, from the moment of the mishap to final report. So we are like a SWAT team. When the call comes in, we drop everything else, go on site, triage the aircraft, return here with the debris, and work with everyone involved, including some who aren’t well-enough versed in the intricacies of materials and processes to ask the right questions. So we have to know not just which questions to ask, but how to find the answers,” Calcaterra said.

“A lot of times we reconstruct the aircraft in a hangar as a first-level triage to determine details about what we really need to look at back at the lab,” he continued. “In 2007, an F-15 broke in half over Missouri and we did reconstruct that plane, but we found the root cause of the mishap in the lab, not with the reconstruction. NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] may look at a reconstruction for months or years – we have to get the right answer fast.”

But RX innovation doesn’t end there. Rapson cited other pivotal material developments that have emerged from RX.

“One is advanced composites development, which clearly came out of RX and has become fairly pervasive. Today, almost every aerospace system uses composites, and you even have commercial aircraft, such as the 787, that are largely composite. That’s pretty remarkable in something that has developed since the 1960s,” Rapson said. “[Another] is the manufacturing technology work RX has done, where they learned to go from piecemeal operations such as CAD [Computer-Aided Design] to additive manufacturing and other things that came out of ManTech [Manufacturing Technology], such as numerical-controlled machining.”

Additionally, Bunning pointed to the directorate’s role in the development of lubricants and adhesives, as well as the investment in the gallium nitride industrial base, helping to enable its use in high-power radar and commercial lighting.

Those kinds of relationships, as technology continues to evolve at a seemingly ever-increasing speed, will mark the future of RX, its role as a national asset, and its contributions to the next generation of aerospace.

Longevity. Given its 100-year legacy of excellence in people and product, it’s no surprise that RX is regarded by many as a national asset. According to Stone, as the U.S. continues to lead the way in areas such as nanotechnology, biomedicine, flexible hybrid electronics, and other emerging sciences, the groundwork that RX has laid in these areas will play an increasingly important role, and so will the work the directorate does in those areas.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Work's conceptualized SR-72 hypersonic UAV.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Work’s conceptualized SR-72 hypersonic UAV.

Russo said RX has been and remains at the root of the technologies critical to the Air Force today. “I think RX is the foundation of everything. You can’t develop a new sensor unless it is more sensitive and has lower cooling requirements than the old sensor – and that is a materials issue. Corrosion is a large systems and materials sustainment problem. 3D printing and hybrid manufacturing technologies are and will continue to be a main RX thrust in materials and manufacturing technology.”

Likewise, Stone emphasized the criticality of RX as a hub of materials expertise. “RX is a unique gem, not only in the Air Force, but for the nation, in the role it plays in our nation’s defense,” Stone said. “The culture of RX is central to how they do business and, because materials are so important to our future, I want to ensure that remains and is even exported to other AFRL tech directorates.”

He added that although there may be future changes to the way the organization does business, he projects that the RX people, budget, and mission will remain relatively consistent.

For the past 100 years, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate has set the standard for materials science, enabling many of the technologies that are commonplace on today’s military aircraft. Those who have walked the halls of RX predict a continued tradition of innovation and excellence. With world-class facilities, people, and partnerships bolstering the effort, there is little doubt that RX will remain a national asset for years to come.

As Russo summed it up, “In aerospace materials, I would say RX is at the national asset level of labs such as JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab] and Lawrence Livermore. If you look at the experimental equipment inside the labs, people from all over the country would love to come here and use what RX has. So I would say RX is a national asset – and has been for years.”