Military Looks for Novel Ways to Employ 3D Printing

By Meredith Roaten
Project ICON is developing the technology to 3D print buildings and other large structures.

Project ICON photo

In April, the Army signed a contract for its “Jointless Hull Project,” which has an ambitious goal of developing a 3D metal printer so large that it can create a military truck exterior in one giant piece.

“The mission is to develop a large-scale tool capable of producing single, jointless combat vehicle hulls at a near net size of 30-foot-by-20-foot-by-12 foot in size,” Larry “LJ” Holmes, principal investigator at ASTRO America, the nonprofit that is working with the Army to develop the massive 3D printer, said in a statement.

Additive manufacturing — also known as 3D printing — has been in development for decades and the U.S. military branches and the defense industrial base have both integrated the advanced manufacturing technique in their processes.

However, in January the Defense Department’s Joint Defense Manufacturing Council, the office of the deputy director for strategic technology protection and exploitation and the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering released the Pentagon’s first additive manufacturing strategy.

The document described five goals for the technology: integrate it into the Pentagon and the defense industrial base; promote agile use; develop best practices and proficiency; secure workflows; and support collaboration across services and the federal government.

Meanwhile, a variety of 3D printing programs are proceeding throughout the military.
Aaron LaLonde, additive manufacturing subject matter expert at Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center — one of the participants in the Jointless Hull Project — said the manufacturing process will ultimately aid warfighters. “This project will scale the benefits of metal additive manufacturing to a size range that will allow the benefits of the technology to be realized on larger system scale parts and enable next-generation vehicle performance,” he said in a statement.

The Army project is one of many ways the armed services are using additive manufacturing to innovate and make supply chains more resilient.

Proponents say additive manufacturing has the potential to save the Defense Department a substantial amount of money in a time when budgets are being squeezed and sustainment costs are stacking up.

Benjamin Leever, technical director in the manufacturing and industrial technologies division at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said the service has reduced sustainment costs by printing tools and fixturing needed for equipment maintenance.

Low-cost tooling saves money and time without adding additional resources to certify the product, he said.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can impact processes and save millions of dollars a year,” he said at a panel in March hosted by media outlet Defense One.

Because interest from defense contractors is high, the Air Force is working on accelerating the airworthiness certification process for components manufactured by 3D printers, he noted.

Texas Air National Guard Lt. Col. Alex Goldberg, joint technology acquisition innovation officer at the Defense Innovation Unit, added that costs can be high for components that are no longer commonly made.

“You hear these stories of $10,000 for a relatively trivial part,” he said. “The incentive for the actual manufacturer to be able to produce that part is at a level to make it worth their time.”

Additive manufacturing can help the services save funds, officials say. One of the Army’s largest efforts includes reviewing weapons systems parts to see which ones could be recreated with 3D printing — particularly those found in legacy systems, Maj. Gen. K. Todd Royar, commanding general of Army Aviation and Missile Command, told reporters in December.

Goldberg said 3D printing reduces the logistical burden on manufacturers because it increases their ability to distribute on demand at the point of need.

“In the next real conflict, we’re going to have to think of ways to be able to move and be more flexible,” he said.

Goldberg pointed to the Marine Corps’ partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit — Project ICON — to develop the technology to 3D print buildings and other large structures like bridges as an example of what will move the technology forward and spark innovation.

The advanced technology could be game-changing in a natural disaster setting, he noted.

The military could “in a humanitarian crisis be able to leave that infrastructure behind to give a foothold for that [affected] nation-state to be able to climb out of whatever disaster that may be,” he said.

While some peer competitors are outspending the U.S. military in research and development, the Pentagon can leverage advanced manufacturing among other emerging technologies to keep pace, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the manufacturing competition with adversary China, in particular. President Joe Biden signed an “Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains” in February to explore vulnerabilities that caused a shortage of semiconductors, commonly known as chips.

In 2020, the United States also struggled to procure personal protective equipment, while China dominated exports.

The proliferation of 3D printing technology in the defense industry could mean “actually being able to bring manufacturing back to the United States and be able to create parts and technology and capabilities that previously had just been too costly to do,” Goldberg said.

Meanwhile, federal government policy has also moved to support additive manufacturing. John Wilczynski, executive director at technology accelerator America Makes, said the Biden administration’s executive order to study supply chains could raise awareness about the technology’s advantages in emergencies.

America Makes is an additive manufacturing accelerator managed and operated by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining.

“Additive is a technology, along with others, that could put us in a position where we have the ability to respond more quickly [to] whatever that might be, whether it’s a crisis or supply chain breakdown,” he said in an interview.

While 3D printing has come a long way, Leever noted that it still needs to overcome consistency and confidence issues. When one part is manufactured, the technology is not advanced enough to guarantee that the same part will be printed exactly the same way at another printer. Additionally, humidity and composition can affect how parts can turn out in different locations.

The commercial and defense industries should be developing printers that can recognize conditions and adjust printing as necessary or find a way to more closely integrate monitoring into the printing process, Leever said.

The private sector has traditionally played a large role in developing the technology. Companies were responsible for approximately 90 percent of all 3D printing patents from 2015 to 2019, according to a Congressional Research Service report, “3D Printing: Overview, Impacts, and the Federal Role.”

Wilczynski noted that a lack of data availability and accessibility also reduces confidence in additive manufacturing.

“It is not insignificant, in terms of time or money, to generate enough data to have confidence in the process in material,” he said. “That has historically not been something that most want to make available to the rest of the community.”

If manufacturers were more willing to share information, it would reduce costs to implement the technology, he said.

Meanwhile, the Army Research Laboratory is looking to expand the materials that can be 3D printed. Brandon McWilliams, the technical lead for metals additive manufacturing, said the service is putting effort toward “really being able to take advantage of the manufacturing freedom that additive presents.”

Next-generation high strength metal alloys and lightweight metal alloys are some of the materials the Army is looking into 3D printing to meet potential performance requirements, he said.

Additionally, the Army has prioritized tracking and standardizing quality by implementing a “digital thread,” he noted. Instead of tracking the engineering of parts through drawings, the service is transitioning to 3D computer aided design, or CAD, models.

Through a digital system, engineers can more easily pinpoint where materials for the product came from, how it was manufactured, what supply chain it came from and what parameters were used to print it.

“That’s really starting to get at defining criticality,” McWilliams said.

Additive manufacturing is an opportunity to learn from the Army’s costly sustainment mistakes, he said. The service wants to work more closely with commercial industry to acquire cutting edge technology, but it needs to position itself to be able to manufacture its own replacement parts.

“They still make it, but we’re going to own the technical data ... so we don’t run into this problem in the future where we’re trying to reverse engineer 40-year-old parts to try and make it again,” McWilliams said.

The Jointless Hull Project is one of the first initiatives aimed at helping the Army take control of its own manufacturing. The service built its own 3D printing hub at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, where the project will kick off. The facility reached initial operating capability in 2019 and will be fully operational this year.

The project is organized through LIFT, the Detroit-based, Defense Department-supported National Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

Nigel Francis, the organization’s CEO and executive director, said getting technology to warfighters as quickly as possibly is part of its mandate.

“Developing the ‘jointless hull’ is also aligned with our mission of driving American manufacturing into the future by connecting materials to processes and to the systems involved,” he said.


Topics: Emerging Technologies

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