Military Yet to Fully Leverage Additive Manufacturing

By Phillip Burton and Samantha McBirney

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Additive manufacturing may very well become a critical component of the Defense Department supply chain, but challenges ranging from decentralized approaches among the various services, a lack of standards, limited awareness and know-how among military workforce and leadership, and intellectual property issues could prevent the Pentagon from realizing its potential.

Additive manufacturing, commonly known as “3D printing,” is an emerging technology with game-changing potential that is already being realized across the U.S. military and the commercial world. It allows manufacturing methods beyond conventional techniques to make select parts on-demand — within the organic industrial base or at the tactical point of need — a capability that could mitigate supply chain disruptions and fundamentally change the way the military identifies, designs, produces, delivers and sustains materiel readiness.

The technology can address select readiness challenges posed by parts obsolescence, sole-sourcing risks, long lead times, and diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages. The ultimate objective is to appropriately posture, scale and operationalize at echelon advanced manufacturing capability across the multi-domain operations framework from the strategic support area to the tactical support area. That will enable readiness and provide overmatch in competition and armed conflict. In short, this technology is a critical new capability to integrate into the defense supply chain and is not only about printing a part, but about getting a given capability back into the fight.

While each service is making significant progress in this space, to date, relatively few parts have been qualified for use due to a multitude of challenges that have little to do with the technology itself, and most of which are universal across the services and Defense Department agencies.

At a high level, there is a fundamental lack of alignment in the approaches being taken within each of the services, which has implications for both intra- and inter-service work. With such decentralized approaches, not only can it be difficult to bridge the gap between the warfighter who needs the technology and the entities who can provide the technology, but there can also be — and has been — a duplication of effort, both within a given service and across the services.

Lengthy and often cumbersome qualification processes are also a significant barrier. At this time, it can take a full year for a non-flight critical part to be qualified for use. This lead time could be significantly shortened if universal standards were in place; however, said standards do not exist within the Defense Department or the commercial world.

While the qualification process for ground systems looks very different, it can still present an obstacle thanks to time-intensive, inflexible requirements.

One of the primary value-adds of additive manufacturing is speed, yet these qualification processes are so long that the supply chain is often given time to correct itself, allowing for a part to become available through traditional avenues before being qualified for first-time use.

No conversation about additive manufacturing is complete without discussing intellectual property and access to technical data packages — specifically, those that consist of 3D geometry.

IP rights can be a major impediment to additively manufacturing permanent replacement parts — as opposed to temporary replacement parts used explicitly for battle damage assessment and repair purposes — particularly if an original equipment manufacturer owns the technical data or an item is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency.

For these reasons, the services lack much of the technical data and the rights required to print the vast majority of parts needed to sustain readiness. While there are various lines of effort focused on addressing these challenges for new materiel acquired, this will remain a significant imposition for legacy and enduring systems.

Achieving full potential of this technology is intrinsically linked to improved education and awareness across the department at all echelons, including senior leaders, the workforce, and those who remain entirely unaware of the space. Many entities within each service know very little about successes and potential use cases for additive manufacturing, resulting in an inconsistent and unpredictable workload. When combined with a lack of formal training, personnel operating in this space can struggle to maintain skills and technical expertise.

Additionally, while the work being done is highly impactful at the individual part level, there remains a disconnect between the expectations of many senior leaders and current-day capabilities, making expectation management critical to long-term success.

Lastly, the traditionally risk-averse culture of the services is slowing progress. A culture shift may be needed to facilitate broader use of additive manufacturing, which could include a fundamental change in the perception of risk. The fear when it comes to use of this technology stems from concern that an additively manufactured part may not achieve the original design intent of the traditionally manufactured part.

While understandable, this fear is unsubstantiated and likely due to insufficient knowledge DoD-wide regarding additive manufacturing, specifically related to testing and qualification processes.

Despite all these roadblocks, the technology continues to advance, and there are many brilliant minds out there working to address these obstacles with the ultimate goal of reducing the sustainment trail while increasing readiness. This is a technology that has already proven to be transformative to the military, and it will only gain further traction in the coming years.

Samantha McBirney is an engineer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. and a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Phillip Burton is the director of advanced manufacturing at U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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