Goals include the ability to print sophisticated aircraft parts on demand, and a blockchain-enabled digital supply chain to secure proprietary information and communications.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—The U.S. Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office (AFRSO) has awarded blockchain innovator SIMBA Chain Inc. a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grant to develop a solution that will ultimately allow the Air Force to manufacture, test, and deploy critical replacement parts for aircraft and other weaponry on forward operating locations and bases around the world. The product will use advanced 3D printing, supported and secured by blockchain, SIMBA Chain said in a release.

SIMBA Chain has teamed with Steel Modular, Inc. to offer the AFRSO a self-contained, mobile 3D manufacturing facility housed in a repurposed shipping container. Each 20- or 40-foot disposable container is equipped with all of the components and resources necessary for secure metal and fiber additive 3D manufacturing, final machining, inspection of finished products, and communication.

The mobile 3D manufacturing units can be climate controlled for the comfort and protection of military personnel and the equipment. Because the containers are designed to be transported virtually anywhere with their contents, they are well-suited for AFRSO’s high-tech, battle-ready needs, according to SIMBA Chain.

The SIMBA Chain solution includes blockchain to secure conversations and information critical to the manufacture of specific parts. It supports the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense’s strategy to transform engineering practices to digital engineering. The solution will accelerate the AFRSO’s ability to produce tooling, fixtures, support equipment, and aircraft parts when and where needed.

SIMBA Chain started in 2017 through a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant awarded to the University of Notre Dame and ITAMCO. The company’s  cloud-based enterprise platform enables academia, industry, and governments to quickly develop and deploy Web 3.0 distributed applications (dApps) across numerous blockchain platforms.

Based on the success of the SBIR Phase I, SIMBA Chain stands to be awarded a Phase II worth $1 million, the company said.

The 90-day SBIR Phase 1, dubbed “RAD2 CAM-MCB,” was awarded March 8, 2021 and will determine the feasibility of deploying the mobile 3D additive manufacturing facilities to austere locations, such as battlefields. The U.S. Airforce Maintenance Enterprise is looking to lean into commercial off-the-shelf technology already in use in private sector maintenance and manufacturing organizations, such as SIMBA Chain, ITAMCO, and Steel Modular, and build collaborations across the U.S. Air Force Maintenance Enterprise.

According to SIMBA Chain CEO Joel Neidig, the ultimate goal of the project is to leverage additive manufacturing so that the Air Force can design and produce parts in days rather than months, respond faster to combat equipment needs on bases and overseas battlefields, and help backfill parts for aging—but still serviceable—planes for which there are no commercially available replacement parts.

“At the heart of this project is enabling and safeguarding the digital supply chain, and that’s exactly where SIMBA Chain flexes its muscles,” Neidig said in the release. “Our blockchain technology ensures data integrity and protects against tampering of intellectual property and communications. Sophisticated hackers are a very real threat. And deploying SIMBA Chain globally, and on a distributed, decentralized basis, provides an unhackable barrier and protects supply chain governance.”

Among the hard problems recognized by the Air Force Battle Damage Assessment and Repair (BDAR) of forward-deployed forces is the critical need to deliver the right part to the right place at the right time, and in the right quantity—something easier said than done when in the heat of battle with lives depending on keeping aircraft and weaponry operational.

SIMBA Chain and partner Steel Modular are betting that their rapidly deployable, self-contained additive manufacturing facilities are exactly what the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office is looking for to support the warfighter within a rapid, austere, and controlled supply chain environment. Elements of the design are reported to include deployability, functionality, affordability, and eco-friendliness.

Steel Modular Founder and Chairman Kelly Freis said she is pleased that the Air Force is looking to successful companies from the private sector to develop this next generation of critical parts manufacturing and digitally empowered supply chains.

“We are honored to have been awarded this SBIR with SIMBA Chain and have the opportunity to use our modular structures in such a novel way. We look forward to proving out our concept to the benefit of the Air Force and other military branches,” she said.

SIMBA Chain described its cloud-based blockchain platform as a solution for the U.S. Department of Defense for projects seeking a means to share and secure information in a manner that is immutable, transparent, and verifiable. Once stored on blockchain, data can’t be changed or deleted, creating a trust factor not afforded by other data sharing and storage solutions, the company said.

The SIMBA Chain platform supports Avalanche, Ethereum, Consensys Quorum, Binance Smart Chain, RSK, Stellar, Hyperledger, and other blockchain protocols.

Steel Modular, Inc. (SMI), founded in 2018, is a small woman-owned and operated company that collaborates with the public and private sectors to design and manufacture steel prefabricated buildings. Steel Modular specializes in ultra-energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable modular buildings from shipping containers to minimize the downtime to facilities following a major catastrophe crisis or conflicts. The company also fabricates and supplies furniture, fixtures, equipment, and decorative lighting.

The Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office, established by the Secretary of the Air Force in 2018, increases mission readiness by rapidly identifying, applying, and scaling technology essential to the operation and sustainment of the United States Air Force.

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