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Metals Affordability Initiative brings together Air Force and industry for greater innovation, agility

Aerospace metallic component production

Through a Metals Affordability Initiative project, AFRL and industry partners study advanced techniques to reduce cost and lead time for the production of aerospace metallic components. The Air Force Research Laboratory-managed MAI effort helps ensure the advancement of metals technologies for the betterment of the both the warfighter and participating partners. (Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – At the heart of some of the most critical Air Force assets is something seemingly very basic—metal. But as hotter, faster, more efficient platforms increasingly become the norm, Air Force suppliers and original equipment manufacturers look toward advancing materials and processing techniques to keep up with changing needs. 

That’s where the Metals Affordability Initiative comes in.

The Metals Affordability Initiative, or MAI, is a collaborative effort managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to ensure the continued advancement of metals technologies for the betterment of the warfighter, industry, and the public consumer.

A consortium of materials suppliers, subcomponent producers, and original equipment manufacturers, MAI brings together members of industry with an interest in improving the current state of metals research for the advancement of materials technology as a whole. MAI members have a keen interest in research and work closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory to perform work that will lead to more efficient processes, lower manufacturing costs, or enhanced materials standards for the warfighter.

“This group consists of industry members that span the entire aerospace metals supply chain,” said materials scientist and program manager Eric Burba.

The consortium is a pre-competitive collaborative environment where members come together to present potential project ideas that have value to both the Air Force and industry. Once project ideas are submitted they are scored within the group, with each member, including AFRL, having one equal vote. The top projects, usually two or three per year, are selected for execution and delivery.

As the projects are matured and validated through the research and development process, AFRL serves alongside the industry representatives on numerous executive committees and provides technical monitoring. Throughout the process, AFRL maintains insight into the development, guiding and informing project efforts along the way. According to Burba, this arrangement gives AFRL a unique perspective into the issues and concerns that affect industry and influence the way manufacturers and suppliers approach research.

Burba emphasized that the pre-competitive nature of the consortium is one of its strongest points. He said that within this environment, companies are free to share ideas without the pressure to take research to a level at which they would be risking intellectual property. Rather, they are given access to research funds that allow them the freedom to think outside of the box for the good of metals technology as a whole.

“MAI gives these companies access to resources that enable them to take greater risk and research areas that might be outside of their norm,” said MAI program manager Capt. Matthew LeSaint. “This research then can be applied to both the Air Force and their commercial products.” 

LeSaint said MAI is unique in that it gives members a forum in which everyone, from raw materials suppliers to OEMs, can talk and collaborate directly. This ability to network and freely share ideas leads to greater insight and problem-solving, which benefits U.S. industry and Air Force interests alike.

This collaborative relationship brings tremendous benefit to the Air Force in terms of technology advancement. As the MAI consortium makes new breakthroughs in metals research, AFRL can put that knowledge to use for the further development of advanced warfighter technologies. Additionally, it ensures the strength and vitality of the domestic supply chain, which LeSaint says is an important factor in decreasing dependence on foreign manufacturers and suppliers.

MAI also enhances the agility and flexibility of metals research. The consortium is constantly working on a variety of projects in various stages of maturity. Because of this, they are able to award new projects as more mature ones reach their conclusion. Every year, AFRL can assess their more pressing issues and select new efforts that will help meet the needs of the future warfighter.

“We’re keeping flexible and fresh in terms of what is current and what is needed,” LeSaint said.

LeSaint describes metals research as a “game of inches,” where even small technological gains can make big differences for companies that produce and utilize high-quality metals. MAI plays a key role in achieving these strides that result in significant gains for Air Force applications.

Active since 1999, the MAI program has achieved many significant breakthroughs throughout its history. Among the recent successes is a novel process for fabricating the geometrically complex structures needed for high-temperature applications such as next-generation jet engines. Another recent development is an affordable and oxidation-resistant titanium alloy for next-generation, fuel-efficient jet engines.

Additionally, new alloy technologies for extreme conditions such as high-pressure, oxygen-rich environments resulted in a high-strength, burn-resistant material.  MAI has also achieved success in a number of projects geared toward reducing costs and maximizing efficiencies in metal component production for aircraft applications and beyond.

But MAI is not a program content to rest on its laurels. 

“Our projects vary from year to year,” said LeSaint. “We assess our needs on a continual basis, so that we can present a fresh picture to industry and let them know what is of value to the Air Force.” He added that the primary goal for the AFRL program managers is structuring MAI-funded programs so that they are consistently and continually relevant to Air Force needs now and into the future. With projects focusing on hypersonic applications as well as developing technology and best practices for additive manufacturing, MAI is looking to bring its knowledge and experience into these esoteric areas to make them more applicable to the Air Force and the metals industry as a whole.

This symbiotic relationship is one that results in benefits and technical advancements that both industry members and the Air Force can build upon for their larger individual endeavors.

“MAI raises our collective level of knowledge.” LeSaint said. “There’s only a finite number of entities working in advanced metals. If we get everyone on the same level, we can build off each other and increase our accumulated knowledge. A rising tide lifts all boats.”