Just In: Advanced Manufacturing Not Yet Adding Up for the Army
NOVI, Michigan— Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is allowing people to make toys, guns and even houses. The Army is trying to adopt the technology to produce replacement parts in the field, but there are numerous technical and administrative barriers to deployment, according to a senior leader.
The Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command wants to produce simple components through additive technology and have them qualified for use in the field, thereby reducing reliance on the standard supply chain, said Brian Butler, deputy to the TACOM commanding general.
“We're still probably between the 'crawl' and 'walk' phase of developing this capability,” he said Aug. 17 during a panel at the Ground Vehicle Systems Engineering and Technology Symposium organized by the Michigan chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association.
While leaders have seen the possibilities of additive manufacturing, the process for testing and qualifying a part for field use is complex, he said.
“We realize that anything that we've got that’s critical to fit, form, function and safety obviously needs to … go through testing, sometimes extensive testing,” he said. “Because of the immaturity of at least the capability that we have, it's taken a tremendous amount of time and resources in order to … get through the policy wickets that are associated with entering or provisioning an additive manufacturing part into the supply system,” he said.
“Currently right now forward, the only capability that we really have is polymer,” which is another limitation on what could be produced in the field, he said.
TACOM started by evaluating 146,000 parts and components. They distilled that down to 1,000 that could potentially be produced through additive manufacturing, he said.
“Out of that thousand, we've got just a little over 200 that we've been able to actually qualify, with a hundred of those only being available for battle damage assessment and repair,” Butler said. That means those parts can only be produced and used in an emergency to get a vehicle or system to a maintenance location for repair with a qualified part.
Plus, TACOM’s current capabilities are limited to producing items the size of a microwave oven or a breadbox, he said. “So, a lot of constraints.”
However, there has been progress and there is a big project in the works, he said.
TACOM has partnered with Ground Vehicle Systems Center to install a gantry-style additive printer in the additive manufacturing center of excellence at Rock Island Arsenal.
“It's going to be the largest one in the world,” he said. The goal is to use that printer to make prototypes of the next-generation combat vehicle, he added.
The printer “will incorporate both additive and subtractive manufacturing in one big, large production envelope in order to take and help us realize what may be within realm of the possible,” he said.
“We consider ourselves right at the cusp of the ‘walk,’” he said. TACOM is continuing to apply resources to move forward with additive manufacturing and streamline the process so it can provide soldiers in the field with the technology they need, he said.