DoD Expands Program to Strengthen U.S. Machine Tool Enterprise

SEPT. 20, 2021 | News

The Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Industrial Policy (IndPol) has awarded the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) $20.3 million in follow-on funds to continue machine tools technology development for America’s Cutting Edge (ACE). This DoD-led initiative, funded through IndPol’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) Program, aims to revitalize the U.S. machine tool sector through transformative thinking, technology, and training.

In March 2020, DoD launched ACE as a three-year initiative to conduct near-term science and technology research designed to significantly advance the efficiency, reliability, and competitiveness of the U.S. machine tool industry, which is critical to modern manufacturing. Three innovations already delivering impacts across the machine tool sector are the “Tap Test”, “Harmonizer”, and an economical alternative to dynamometers for determining cutting force.

Tap Test and Harmonizer

Decreasing overhead costs and increasing productivity of existing machine tools is key to U.S. manufacturers remaining competitive. Small and medium manufactures are especially challenged to identify the right operating speeds to minimize tool wear and maximize machine productivity. ACE developed the Tap Test as an after-market tool that can be easily used to tune the cutting parameters for each machine based on physics. An easy-to-use dashboard allows users to get the best performance out of each machine based on the machine and its tool’s unique “DNA-like” vibration thumbprint. On average, each test enabled the metal removal rate to be improved by more than 224 percent and machine cycle time to be reduced 41 percent, resulting in 80 additional hours of machine time per year. ACE has partnered with MSC, Inc. to deploy the Tap Test through their network of service technicians. To date, over 150 MSC, Inc. metalworking specialists across the U.S. have been equipped with, and use, these measurement kits to help MSC, Inc. customers optimize performance. Initial response to the Tap Test has been very positive, with industry requesting an even more portable capability for smaller machines.

For very small tools not well suited to the Tap Test, ACE has also created a prototype “Harmonizer” that uses each machine’s unique cutting sounds to help manufacturers quickly find parameters that provide peak operation. The Harmonizer can also detect small changes in machine performance that indicate impending tooling failure, saving time and the cost of needless waste.

Economical Alternative to Dynamometers for Determining Cutting Force

ACE has also worked to develop a low-cost displacement-based dynamometer that will be affordable for the many small machine shops that serve DoD suppliers.

Cutting force is central to machine tool effectiveness and efficiency. Dynamometers measure force. Large machine shops doing extreme-precision work use laboratory-quality dynamometers to measure cutting forces when testing materials, verifying machine setup, monitoring the cutting process monitoring, and verifying part quality. Dynamometers even have some cybersecurity implications, as they can provide indications that a tool is not cutting at the intended force level—possibly as the result of control that has been altered as part of a cyber attack.

Conventional dynamometers are prohibitively expensive for small companies and sometimes present distorted and/or incorrect force readings. ACE has successfully developed a far less expensive displacement-based dynamometer which can provide the same measurements as normal cutting-force dynamometers, with added damping for increased stability and less distortion at certain frequencies. Low-cost dynamometers like the one developed by ACE are far more affordable for even small machine shops, offering small shops owners the opportunity to take on extreme-precision work they may previously have viewed as too risky to attempt. DoD benefits by having more shops compete for high-end work, and the shops benefit by winning more work.

As a result of its first-year successes, DoD expanded the duration and scope of ACE’s work to six-years and a potential total value of $81 million. The expansion adds new tasks that will have far-reaching impacts across the machine tool sector. New tasks include research on combining 3-D printing and machining of ceramic materials and metals; reducing costs and lead times of the production of dies and molds; fault detection in machine tools; and additive manufacturing of shape memory alloys for defense systems.

Machining Workforce Training

In addition to its machine tool technology efforts, ACE has partnered with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), and University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) Professor of Mechanical Engineering and ORNL Joint Faculty Member, Dr. Tony Schmitz, to develop and deliver machining workforce training across the country. The initial training program was designed to teach essential machining skills and address the nation’s growing manufacturing workforce gap. The six-hour online curriculum walks users through the steps necessary to prepare to machine a component, up to the point of engaging with the machine tool in the physical world. The course includes an introduction to machining, exercises in CNC coding, theory and application of the Tap Test, discussion of machining cost management, and an introduction to metrology as applied in machine tools.

To date, more than 1,500 students in 46 states have signed up for the course. These students represent future manufacturing engineers, machine tool designers, entrepreneurs, machinists, technicians, and machine shop owners. The Director of the IBAS Program, Ms. Adele Radcliffe, praised ACE’s progress in these efforts stating, “Machine tools are the core of manufacturing—no nation can manufacture defense or commercial products without them. ACE’s ability to not only improve current machine tool capabilities, but also train students of all backgrounds on machine tools is showing positive impacts all across the country.”

This summer, ACE-IACMI has extended this training program by hosting eight in-person ACE CNC Machining bootcamps for 58 male and 9 female attendees from 9 states and all experience levels (high school students through 30-year machinists). Representatives of Tennessee’s congressional delegation observed the bootcamp on June 11, and Ms. Ratcliff was a key part of both the 19-23 July ACE CNC Machining bootcamp and a parallel Composites Machining Workshop hosted by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for 50 graduate and undergraduate engineering students. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy Mr. Jesse Salazar interacted with 10 veterans attending the 9-13 August ACE CNC Machining bootcamp and met with both ACE and Oak Ridge National Laboratory leaders. He declared the event, “Excellent! I really enjoyed the visit and was so impressed by the incredible work you’ve done.”

Dr. Schmitz and UT PhD students Emma Betters, Aaron Cornelius, and Jake Dvorak were key to the process of creating a curriculum suitable for a wide range of participants with varying backgrounds and levels of experience. “Trying to create something that works for everyone’s skill levels was a challenge, but we successfully incorporated a mix of instruction including demonstration, lecture, and hands-on tasks that will appeal to a range of learners. I was happily surprised by how smoothly the training went,” said Ms. Betters.

In its first year, the ACE team has developed numerous key technologies that will help fortify DoD’s machine tool capabilities. “ACE had many successes over the past year. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it achieved above and beyond what was expected, producing machine tool improvements, workforce development efforts, and supporting advances in COVID-19-related PPE manufacturing. ACE is proving to be a true asset to the Nation,” says Ms. Danielle Miller, Director of IndPol’s Office of Assessments & Investments.

For additional information on this, and other IBAS projects, please email the IBAS team at

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