New Pentagon policy to accelerate use of 3D printing amid fresh cyber concerns

Defense Department officials want to accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing to solve frontline and logistical challenges alike under a recent policy change, even as the department’s watchdog raises new concerns about how the military secures its 3D printing systems.

In June, DoD issued its first additive manufacturing policy. The publication follows closely on the heels of DoD’s first-ever additive manufacturing (AM) strategy, released in January.

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Military starts to run with 3D printing and additive manufacturing

Defense and aerospace uses for additive manufacturing range from quick prototyping to spare parts logistics support at sea and in other remote locations.

Even within heavy industries, people often speak of 3D printing in terms of science fiction. With the allure of creating something from nothing, it has been poised to revolutionize prototyping, manufacturing, and resupplying for decades. However, additive manufacturing — another name for 3D printing — also is a reality here and now.

U.S. Marine Corps technicians discuss the process of producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.

Numerous 3D printing companies offer ready-made menus of different materials and techniques. Some experts say it’s still the way of the future, while others say no one process (or array of sub-processes) can do all the things 3D printing promises to do. So which is it: practical or over-promised?

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Army gung-ho on 3D printing spare parts

Additive manufacturing has come to the forefront of the Army’s attention as the service looks for ways to quickly reproduce parts without needing to continuously rely on industry. 

In 2019, the service released a new policy directive that outlined its goals to expand its 3D printing processes and established an additive manufacturing center of excellence at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. 

Maj. Gen. K. Todd Royar, commanding general of Army Aviation and Missile Command, said on the aviation side, he has been using the directive as a baseline for the command’s 3D printing efforts and then incorporating additional standards to ensure that it can meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations as well. 

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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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