AFA NEWS: 3D Printing Can Produce Deterrence, Officials Say

By Allyson Park

Air Force photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Efficient production and additive manufacturing capabilities are vital to the U.S. Air Force’s transition to a modernized force, senior defense officials said.

“[Research and development] without procurement and production, is interesting, but it doesn't really matter at the end of the day,” William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said during a panel at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference Sept. 12. “I would just leave it at that. Production, production, production.”

And an emerging form of production is additive manufacturing and 3D printing, a completely real capability that is currently being used by the military and by the commercial industry, which was not the case 10 years ago, he said.

“Additive manufacturing is being used to produce parts in aircraft engines; car companies are using them for mission critical parts,” he said. “What’s interesting about it is not just that you can do things faster, you can produce things that we could not have produced otherwise. And what’s happening — and we’re seeing it in Ukraine — is it’s also changing how sustainment is done.”

Utilizing additive manufacturing and digital engineering to inform production makes the research and development process and the production process much more efficient and much faster, he said.

“With going right back and forth with additive manufacturing, and going back and iterating with [digital engineering,] magic can happen,” LaPlante said. “It’s happening right now in the commercial space, where [space development agencies] are going from the design phase to production and going up to orbit in three years. Same things are happening with the car companies with Formula One. So that’s really, really exciting.”

As National Defense has reported, the Army, Navy and Air Force have been experimenting with 3D printing to understand how mature and deployable the technology is. Several impediments remain to widespread use: the size and weight of printers; power consumption; the materials and alloys that can be printed; and the lengthy certification process for parts to be used in critical functions.

Still, defense officials express optimism that 3D printing will contribute to modern concepts like agile combat employment that the Air Force is racing to employ in the Indo-Pacific.

Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said efficient production and production ability is key, especially as the Air Force makes the transition to a modernized force. Production ensures safety, security, effectiveness and credibility, and “all of those factors come into play when you talk about strategic deterrence,” he said.

In order for there to be production, there must, of course, be people, LaPlante said.

“The country that wins in the people race in those areas — or the company, if it’s an outside company that wins — it’s going to win overall,” LaPlante said.

The changing work and government landscape must also be taken into consideration while looking for the best people. Demographics, requirements, people’s expectations on work-life balance and alternative solutions to work like remote working have changed drastically over the last few years, and these must be considered when searching for and creating opportunities for people.

“We have to think differently about the workforce, and every CEO that's worth their salt, that is the number one thing they worry about at night,” LaPlante said.

Topics: Manufacturing, Procurement, Research and Development

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