US Army Learning About and Using 3D Printing to Improve Military Readiness
The US Army has long been putting 3D printing to good use. In an article published in the latest edition of Army AL&T Magazine, senior editor Steve Stark takes a deep dive into just how this branch of the military is using 3D printing, and what barriers stand in its way.
Stark wrote that 3D printing “is a natural fit for the Army” as the military branch works to upgrade its manufacturing technologies. Dr. Philip Perconti, director of the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL), says the technology “is at a pivotal stage in development.”
Dr. Perconti believes that mobile production of various replacement parts and components is on the horizon, and he’s not wrong: the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines are already taking advantage of this application.
3D printing can be used to improve readiness, which is a fairly wide-ranging category that covers everything from buildings and repairs to logistics and sustainment. The overarching goal is to send units out with just the right amount of equipment to establish a mobile unit for on-demand 3D printing.
Mike Nikodinovski, a mechanical engineer and additive expert with the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), explained that various places around the Army, like its Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) and the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), are currently enhancing readiness, and speeding up the sustainment process, by experimenting with the 3D printing of plastic and metal parts.
Additive manufacturing is very different from subtractive manufacturing, which means that critical training is involved.
Megan Krieger, a mechanical engineer at the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), explained that the use of makerspaces in the MWRs (morale, welfare, and recreation facilities) at libraries is a helpful way to get military personnel more familiar with 3D printing. She explained that this way, “if people are passionate about making things, they’ll learn it a lot better than if they’re just thrown into it.”
Outside of actually learning how to use the technology, the Army is also working to develop new materials and design tools for 3D printing.
The Army also needs to determine the specific economics of adopting 3D printing. While cost is less of a factor when you’re up against a tight deadline, this reverses when manufacturing reproducibility and cost are more important in a project. Additional factors include how critical the need for the part is, how quickly developments are being made, what else depends on the particular project, and where exactly the Army is spending money.
Stark wrote that the Army is mostly “focusing its efforts on its modernization priorities,” and leaving further development up to academia and industry. If our military wants to use 3D printing for real-world applications, this development needs to speed up – these parts must stand up under plenty of stress.
Dr. Perconti concurred:
For example, AMRDEC has been working with General Electric Co. to 3D print parts for the T700 motor, which powers both the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. However, these motor parts are not in use, as they have not yet been tested and and qualified at the Army’s standards. Kathy Olson, additive manufacturing lead in the Manufacturing Science and Technology Division of the Army’s Manufacturing Technology program at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, said this project is “more of a knowledge transition” to show that it’s possible to 3D print the parts with laser powder bed fusion.
In order to qualify 3D printed parts for Army use, the materials must first be qualified.
One solid application for Army 3D printing is tooling, as changes in this process don’t need any engineering changes.
If applied correctly, 3D printing will allow soldiers deployed all over the world to make almost anything they need in the field.
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[Images: US Army photos by Jon Micheal Connor, Army Public Affairs, unless otherwise noted]
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January 10, 2019 at 03:24PM