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