Foresight Institute Logo
Image of nano

Lockheed Martin on nanotech

Just finished our Energy panel, which included Malcolm O’Neill, VP and CTO of Lockheed Martin. He said that Lockhee is “very interested” in “Higher performance and quality (through assembling atomically precise materials and devices)”. Why does their view matter so much? He also mentioned that Lockheed hires 6% of all the US graduates in science and technology every year. [Correction: make that 6% of US graduates in engineering.—CP]

4 Responses to “Lockheed Martin on nanotech”

  1. Novak Says:

    It’s also important because, there is an informal United States hierarchy of organizations ranked according to the length of their planning horizons. At the very long end are the military proper, and the various supporting apparati of national labs, national foundations, and so forth, along with the universities. Then you get down to big defense companies, and a few other technology giants. Then more mainstream research companies, and finally everyday use.

    That Lockheed is interested is part of an overall trickledown that I’ve expected to happen for quite some time; because the military is interested, they will begin making demands of the defense giants. Now that one fo the defense giants is beginning to respond in kind, the other three (Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, in no particular order) will necessarily need to follow suit. And one of the current vogue trends (and a very good one, in my opinion) for the sorts of contracts that are being awarded these days is to place a high premium on the ability to transfer technology to and from the commercial sector. So the next level of trickledown (which I don’t really expect to see for a few more years– the national research and engineering community does not turn on a dime…!) is from defense giants to their subsidiaries and close commercial partners.

    This, I think, is all to the good.

    This is how that sector of the research infrastructure works. It does not turn on a dime, as I said, but once it starts to churn, it churns very strong and steady. One model, though by no means the only one, for how this process works is the overall history of gallium arsenide (and now gallium nitride, indium phosphide, and silicon carbide) microwave circuitry research. These technologies found their way into commercial communications equipment fairly easily.

  2. Phillip Huggan Says:

    Novak, would you do me a favour and hazard a very coarse guess of the planning timeframe (in years) for each of the different groups in your hierarchy? If you could, it would add to my understanding of the political nature of nanotech funding.

  3. John Novak Says:

    As scientific wild-ass guesses? Sure, why not. Take my guesses with a grain of salt, or better yet, get the opinions of someone like Tim Oren, who actually works as a venture capitalist, to crosscheck.

    The military plans to the horizon of futility– twenty five to fifty years out (as well as, of course, worrying about next month and next year.) If you doubt this, all you need to do is look at the logistics planning for programs like the Joint Strike Fighter (twenty odd years of production alone) or even individual aircraft carriers, which have useful lives spanning in decades. There’s a difference between logistics planning and technology planning, but even so, the United States military is very forward looking. I call it the horizon of futility because it’s damn difficult to plan for technology out to 2030.

    But remember, the military has next day, next week, and next year concerns. The amount of money the military spends thinking about 25 years from now is proportionally very small. But a very small portion of a staggeringly large amount is still pretty hefty, at the end of the day.

    The National Labs system, along with DARPA and other national agencies are dragged along in part by the military, to a greater or lesser degree. But they’re not all-military, all the time, so (it is my perception) they are not quite as far forward looking. DARPA, for instance, has self-defined its mission not only as far-forward looking, but also as transfer to the commercial sector, so that puts them in a different box.

    The Big Four defense contractors are dragged into looking forward as well, by the nature of their customer. It is simple fact that those four companies have logistics capabilities (what I’m talking about here is, for instance, service and maintenance contracts for equipment they sell) out into multiple decades. The military gets very cranky if you deliver a hundred jets to them, and then disappear. But because large efforts begin years or even decades before they finally come to fruition, and because defense contracting officials sit down and plan with military leaders for future capabilities, they need to look forward in technology as well.

    Again, not as far, because the coffers aren’t as deep. But, it’s not uncommon for me to see technology roadmaps going out a decade or more, projecting capabilities for various things.

    I suspect that the biggest of the commercial industry companies are about the same. But getting away from that top tier, the companies and the coffers get smaller, and the horizons necessarily get shorter. It’s hard to take a ten year gamble on a line of research when you only have enough cash on hand to survive for two or three years. The turnover from research to product needs to be smaller for smaller companies with less deep pockets– five years, three years, two years, all the way down to desperate gambles and start-up companies that flail and fail.

    What doesn’t fit neatly into that model is the University system. The economics are completely different, since endownments government funding (especially state level) and research grants provide the means for excellent material resources, and the research environment provides a constant flow of up and coming but extremely gifted researchers who work for exceptionally low salaries, learning from a cadre of extremely experienced researchers who can’t be fired. (Grad students and tenured professors, respectively.) So sometimes you’ll get brilliance for hire through contracts, and other times you’ll get people working 25 or 50 years out into the future, not because it’s practical, but because it amuses them.

    The fun part is the feedback between all these layers, which seems almost like it was designed to produce a lot of exploratory churn at the low levels, even if it means failed companies, but which kicks the successes up to higher and higher levels.

  4. Says:

    Thanks for you response!!

Leave a Reply