3D printing can keep aging Air Force aircraft flying

And the military wants you—to help it make spare parts for decades-old B-52 bombers and other planes. 

GLENN HOUSE AND his colleagues spent more than four years making a new toilet for the B-1 Lancer. The challenge wasn’t fitting the john into the cockpit (it went behind the front left seat), but ensuring that every part could handle life aboard a plane that can pull 5 Gs, break the sound barrier, and spend hours in wildly fluctuating temperatures. The end result didn’t just have to work. It had to work without rattling, leaking, or revealing itself to enemy radar. Having it OK’d for use aboard the bomber was just as complex as making it. “Getting a part approved can take years,” says House, the cofounder and president of Walpole, Massachusetts-based 2Is.

A man walks on the wing of a plane at an air base

Until last year, 2Is was in the military parts business, furnishing replacement bits for assorted defense equipment. (Pronounced “two eyes,” it sold off the parts business and now focuses on defense-related supply chain software.) Providing spare parts for the military is a peculiar niche of the economy. Things like aircraft and submarines spend decades in service, and the companies that made them or supplied their myriad parts often disappear long before their products retire. So when something needs a new knob, seat, or potty, the military often turns to companies that specialize in making them anew.

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3D printing and defence: Leading militaries named

The 3D printing industry was worth $3bn in 2013 and grew to $7bn in 2017. GlobalData forecasts the 3D printing market to account for more than $20bn in spend by 2025.

3d printing defence

As 3D printing develops it is now starting to be realised in a wide variety of industries, but its potential in the aerospace and defence industry is significant and most major militaries and companies are exploring their options with the technology.

Some are still in the testing phase, while others are actually deploying the technology in final production. This is particularly true in the aerospace industry, where engines, aircraft and even satellites are using 3D printed components at present.

Listed below are the militaries that have taken an early lead in implementing 3D printing technology, as identified by GlobalData.

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U.S. Army Secretary places 3D printing centre of modern policy

In September 2019, U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy issued a directive supporting the force’s ongoing implementation of 3D printing. Establishing a policy for the four official factions of the U.S. Army, the directive focuses specifically on “Enabling Readiness and Modernization Through Advanced Manufacturing” encompassing additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and advanced composite materials.

Marines from 7th Engineer Support Battalion along with engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory pose with a concrete bunker during a 3D concrete printing exercise. Photo via U.S. Marines/Staff Sgt. Michael Smith, 7th ESB.

“Advanced manufacturing will fundamentally change the way the Army designs, delivers, produces, and sustains materiel capabilities,” states the objective.

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U.S. Marines conduct first concrete 3D printing operations

Teams from the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), have conducted the first 3D concrete printing operation at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) in Champaign, Illinois.

Marines from 7th Engineer Support Battalion along with engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory pose with a concrete bunker during a 3D concrete printing exercise. Photo via U.S. Marines/Staff Sgt. Michael Smith, 7th ESB.

In doing so, the teams, which also includes the 7th Engineer Support Battalion (ESB), tested a new continuous mixer and a three-inch print nozzle to additively manufacture multiple structures, such as barracks and a bridge. 

“This is really the first time we’ve ever printed something large with this system. It is experimental right now and we are trying to push the technology forward,” stated Megan Kreiger, project lead for the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures (ACES) at CERL.

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US Marines, Engineers conduct a first-of-its-kind 3D printing exercise

US Marines from Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) and 7th Engineer Support Battalion (ESB) along with engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) conducted the first known 3D concrete printing operation with a three-inch print nozzle at the CERL headquarters in early August in Champaign, Illinois.

The CERL, MCSC and 7th ESB team tested a new continuous mixer and three-inch pump for this print operation after successfully printing multiple structures, including a barracks and a bridge using, a two-inch pump and hose, the US Marine Corps said.

“This is really the first time we’ve ever printed something large with this system,” said Megan Kreiger, project lead for the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures—or ACES—team at CERL. “It is experimental right now and we are trying to push the technology forward. This is the first time in the world anyone has really tried using these larger bead systems with these larger pumps.”

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The potential impact of 3D printing on the military supply chain

3 D Printing is in its infancy in terms of providing parts for the military.

A challenge for the military is of course the need for parts reliability and ruggedness at very high standards.

This is why the term “military grade” was invented.

But as 3D printing becomes part of the sustainment enterprise, there are very significant impacts to be anticipated.

“Just in time” gets a whole new meaning when one can build parts locally.

This means as well that distribute operations can be facilitated more effectively.

And there is a significant potential reduction on the supply fleet, whether it be by land, sea or air.

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3D metal printer to shorten military supply chain

In an attempt to shorten the U.S. military’s supply chain, the United States Army Research Laboratory has awarded a $15 million contract to 3D systems to develop a metal printing 3D printer.

The company will team up with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) to develop the “largest, fastest, most precise metal 3D printer.”

3d metal printer

The intent is to add capabilities to military supply chains developing and manufacturing combat vehicles, helicopters, missile defense capabilities, long rang munitions, and more.

The project is a part of the United States Army’s Additive Manufacturing Implementation Plan that uses 3D printing technologies to refurbish and create military parts and tools.

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US Navy holds event to promote 3D printing at shipyards

The US Navy has conducted Print Sprint II event in San Diego to encourage the use of 3D printing technology at naval shipyards to support fleets.

Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Tactical Innovation Implementation Lab (TIIL) organised the event designed to enable navy maintenance providers to work collaboratively to develop new 3D printing solutions and applications.

Print Sprint II comes after the first print sprint was conducted last year at Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Keyport to gauge the fleet and shipyards’ abilities to create a random part in a short time through additive manufacturing.

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U.S. Army will leverage latest 3D printing technologies

According to estimates provided by the Pentagon, 3D printing capabilities will be increasingly integrating into the U.S. Army, reported by Devon L. Suits, Army News Service earlier this month.

As 3D printing increases both in the field and at depots, the Army’s Center of Excellence for Additive and Advanced Manufacturing is slated to reach initial operating capability this year at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.

Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, G-4, outlined the Army’s current 3D printing capabilities at the 2019 Military Additive Manufacturing Summit and Technology Showcase Feb. 6, in Tampa, Florida.

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3D printing applied to MRO of F/A-18 Hornet by U.S. Marines

A pilot looks out of the canopy of his F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Ian C. Anderson

At the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni, southern Japan, 3D printing is now in use to keep F/A-18 Hornet multirole fighters airborne.

MCAS Iwakuni engineers have devised two products that reduce the time it takes to repair the fighter jets, saving costs for the U.S. Department of Defense. The products help with the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of the fighter jets, covering all tasks carried out to ensure the airworthiness of an flight vehicle.

The 3D printed products include an engine ship kit, designed by the Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12 (MALS 12), and a plastic ring kit that helps the maintenance of the bearings on the F/A-18’s Gatling gun. 

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