3D printing has many military applications. Militaries around the world have been working on developing 3D printing technologies, using 3D printing for prototypes, developing their own fablabs and using the technology in aircraft and other military vehicles. Many millions have been invested in 3D printing technologies and getting them ready for production in the field. Millions more have been invested in developing fundamentally new technologies. Currently there is a 3D printing arms race quietly developing between China and the United States. Many commanders and planners have realized that 3D printing is a technology with both strategic and tactical implications. In this article we’ll give you an overview of, much of, what is happening with the military and 3D printing.
3D Printing On Top of the Existing Military Infrastructure
A modern military is essentially UPS with guns. Around six men support one in the field. Every kilo of food, water, fuel, ammunition, clothing has to be protected, redirected, unpacked, labeled and carried to the warfighter who needs it. Each kilo requires men to drive trucks, people to escort these trucks, bases to house them and this then requires more food, trucks and other supplies. A pyramid of escalating need and requirement for supplies. If the military economizes on weight it not only saves that one kilo that has to be shipped but the many additional kilos needed to arrange and protect this original shipment. In 2017, an army still marches on its stomach. Meanwhile warfare is becoming, for NATO forces especially, a more technologically advanced affair. In Gulf War I, many Apache helicopters were grounded. The most advanced helicopter in the world, a tank killer pur sang, was sidelined for a lot of the war. What use is the most advanced equipment in the world if you can’t use it? The reason the Apache was grounded was that sand entered the helicopter fans making them unusable. In Gulf War II it took the US military 14 months to upgrades its Humvees to sufficiently withstand IEDs. One of the highest sources of casualties was partially due to IEDs but also due to the US military’s procurement system, which is slow and inefficient. As much as 30% of US air and Naval power is currently unusable at any given moment due to maintenance. Upgrades, parts and refits in the field and solutions to unanticipated problems are crucial to making an army work.
No plan survives contact with the enemy, although some equipment survives contact with the field. Since the beginning of war fighting the individual soldier has been improvising and finding their own solutions for problems in the field. This can range from bringing their own equipment or experimenting with whatever they can find. Essentially with a Maker-like mentality this improvisation has had a huge impact. The planner and procurement officer buys the equipment they think that, based on a specification, the soldier needs. The soldier then uses this as a baseline to create what works in the field. It was however something by the grunt for the grunt. This improvisation and making took place outside of the military of ranks, procedures and rules. Now militaries are realizing that they can harass this improvisational “can do spirit” in a more formalized way by using 3D printing.
The main way militaries are formalizing existing informal “hardware hacking” by the soldier in the field is through fablabs. In several theaters fablabs have been deployed. Some have desktop 3D printers, others industrial machines. Still other fablabs have a whole host of equipment such as casting, CNC, laser cutting, lathes and 3D printers.
A good example of what a fablab can bring the individual soldier is the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force Fablabs project in Afghanistan. In this project a mobile fablab was placed in theater. This fablab has 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines and other equipment. The idea was to quickly assist troops with 3D printing items that they needed.
An example of this was the M249 bipod attachment. The M249 is the main SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon)/LMG (light machine gun) of the US Army. It is meant to give small units suppressive fire and high rates of automatic fire. It is a key weapon especially when assaulting or trying to overcome ambushes or sustained assaults. This weapon has been in use since 1984 and has served in every major US conflict since. Over time there were some issues reported with it. In Afghanistan US troops gave feedback on the gun and reported a key issue with the weapon because of its bipod: “The standard issue M249 bipod attachment does not allow for horizontal movement, restricting the weapon capability.” Essentially you could not strafe or move the gun horizontally so each time you had to engage a new target the weapon had to be picked up and repositioned. “In less than one week, the Lab developed and fit a new attachment that extends the range of M249 movement.” The problem was identified, a solution was prototyped using 3D printing and then a milled metal part was put into service within a week. This is lightspeed compared with the many months that it would have normally taken a modern military to produce a solution for such an issue. Additionally, based on soldier feedback this solution could be reengineered or improved further still. 3D printing gives military commanders and warfighters agility in engineering specific rapid solutions to their problems in the field. As the environment or battle evolve so can their equipment.
In another example IED detectors could not work at night, greatly diminishing their usefulness and the safety of soldiers. A 3D printed mount for IED detector lights was made that let soldiers use them at night. This increased their safety and the REF fablab then worked with the military to quickly produce 500 units of these IED detector light holders for use in the field. A custom made, custom designed solution fit for purpose and developed quickly.
In addition to being more effective and developing equipment that has not been made yet fablabs can also bring efficiency. A military brings in lots of equipment and this is encased in lots of packaging. If this packaging can be recycled into 3D printing materials then new things can be made in an efficient manner. This is why militaries around the world are looking at recycling ammunition casings, food packaging and other items into 3D printed things using filament recyclers and other equipment.
In prosthetics and individual wear such as shoes 3D printing also has a role to play by letting medical staff 3D print out individual prosthetics in the field. Fab labs are an emerging phenomenon but are not confined to land-based fablabs.
Fablabs on board
One of the US Navy’s newest warships is currently out of commission. The reason? Maintenance and repair. Especially for very technologically advanced countries the tip of the spear grows ever sharper and ever more brittle. A modern warship is like a roving college campus with much more gear and a far greater appreciation for fire safety. The amount of equipment, sensors, wiring, computing power, electrical equipment and machinery is intense. If critical parts break, the warship, no matter how sophisticated, is out of commission. A multi-million or multi-billion dollar ship, sitting in a harbor unusable, but for want of a single part.
This explains why the US Navy is looking at putting metal 3D printers and fablabs on board surface ships. I personally think that, depending on the 3D printing technology used, this could be a spectacularly ill-advised idea. Some technologies are an inherent fire hazard and could lead to serious issues onboard ships if they malfunctioned. There are very few things in the world that like to burn quite like titanium powder does. The idea in and of itself, however, is a sound one.
If spare parts can be 3D printed then ships can stay at sea longer and be effective for longer periods. Iterative improvements in technologies or upgrades while at sea are also tantalizing glimpses in a more technology-flexible future for the military.
Also on land the military is looking to 3D printing for MRO operations. Maintenance and repair is being conducted by using 3D printed parts. The most prevalent are probably Sciaky and Optomec repaired turbine blades. Turbine blades on tanks and aircraft provide a lot of the power to a modern military. When turbine blades are worn down you could either make an entirely new blade or turn to 3D printing. By using Sciaky’s EBAM technology or Optomec’s LENS technology the worn turbine blade is rejuvenated. The existing blade is put on the 3D printer and new material is added to it. Usually excess material is then removed by CNC or another process. The result? The turbine blade is good as new but at lower cost.
What’s more, repair parts can now be made on demand or close to the incident. In one case the US Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center East 3D printed plastic parts overnight which were then used to create repair parts for a Harrier aircraft that had made a hard landing that night. Much media excitement about 3D printing is centered around direct printing of parts but often 3D printing also works well in combination with existing technologies. Such a quick repair saved the Navy several weeks of downtime for the plane and increased their readiness overnight.
In refits where in some cases a limited run of aircraft for example have to be upgraded 3D printing is being used more prevalently. Aircraft themselves are a rather small series affair comparatively. But, upgrading these “50 F series Radar Aircraft to the G series variant” is a very small affair indeed. Rather than make a new production line, new molds, new tooling and then start 3D printing lets small series of aircraft parts, tools, jigs, fixtures and molds be 3D printed. This lowers the cost for the contractor and lets them complete the work faster. Of the public information available BAE Systems has said that it has used 3D printing to make refit parts for Tornado aircraft.
As with almost any product development, 3D printing is used extensively in making military prototypes. Additionally however many of these prototypes are put directly into service. Accelerating the procurement process and making it more efficient is a key priority for the US military in particular. Increasingly small run or niche military products are quickly being developed using 3D printing. Requested by the warfighter currently in the field, a quick solution is 3D printed and a new specifically developed product is pressed into their hands. Especially in the US Special Operations community this kind of use of 3D printing is undergoing a significant increase.
Boeing Phantom works designed, developed and flew a drone within a four-week time span.
There may be as many as 800 3D printed parts on the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning). Plastics 3D printing technologies, high-temperature plastic 3D printing and multiple metal 3D printing were all commercialized for aviation for the JSF. Which is just so much more than just a group hug for Lockheed. It is also a Trojan horse for the industrialization of 3D printing for aviation by companies not called Boeing. Lockheed and partners were far behind Boeing in using 3D printing for space and aviation. Boeing had a huge operational lead on getting parts on aircraft and producing prototypes faster. Some spy drone programs let Lockheed catch up and the JSF program has given the company much needed expertise in developing 3D printed drones and aircraft parts.
In aviation 3D printed parts let you save weight which means that the performance of the aircraft will increase dramatically and directly as a result. You can also reduce your number of parts significantly saving on production time, storage, risk and up front investment. You can iterate faster, improve faster and costs will be lower.
One area where this has had the most effects is with drones. A significant amount of production capacity in North American 3D printing services was used for drones. Drone prototypes exhibited all the advantages 3D printing had to offer in terms of quick iterations, weight savings and the reduction of parts. Since everyone wanted their own drone at one point the series were small and lots of versions had to be made from man packable drones to drones for use on aircraft carriers and intelligence drones. These small series would have normally required a lot of upfront investment in tooling and time. Many drone manufacturers instead decided to use 3D printing in the final drone. By 3D printing final parts such as struts, wings, inlets, housings and structural parts they could save money and time and get to market quickly. They could also further improve and iterate their drone parts while further offering customized solutions for other militaries. Drones did not have the same certification and qualification requirements that aircraft did so it was much easier to put these parts into service. Many contractors have since adopted 3D printing more widely in manufacturing. Companies are using powder bed fusion in metals and plastics, fused deposition modeling, EBAM, EBM and other technologies to directly produce parts for these drones.
Similarly aerospace and military contractors have been working in 3D printing missiles for over a decade. Raytheon and others want to make completely 3D printed missiles with all the components made with 3D printing. Raytheon says that, its “researchers have created nearly every component of a guided weapon using 3-D printing, including rocket engines, fins, parts for the guidance and control systems, and more.” Technologies are being developed to let them do this. Lighter missiles which are faster to make would benefit the contractor and the military. The Trident Missile program is a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile that is armed with thermonuclear warheads. Due to legacy costs and the complexities of manufacturing the Trident missile D5 program is looking to reduce these costs by using 3D printing. One complex assembly of parts consisting of individually made parts will then be 3D printed in metal in one production step. The same reasons why 3D printing is an interesting technology for civilian aircraft, manufacturing and product development make them good technologies for militaries worldwide to use.
The military will adopt and use any available technology that is of use to it. In the case of 3D printing militaries have been investing considerably in 3D printing since the mid-nineties. 3D printing has the potential to make military equipment faster and with less cost than other processes. Simultaneously weight can be saved on the final part and this part can be designed in novel ways. 3D printing accelerates product development, saves money on getting new things made and lets one integrate functionality, parts and assembly. Considerable investments are being made worldwide to develop, qualify and certify 3D printed parts for the military. We must accept that the technology that we love so dearly will be used in ways that may not be acceptable to us. 3D printing has the potential to fundamentally alter the way many things are being made from Yoda heads to nuclear missiles. It is important to realize however that when governments extol the virtues of 3D printing and promote these technologies or invest in them they are not doing so in order to repair the button of your washing machine. There are strategic and tactical reasons for them to master this technology and win in an emerging 3D printing arms race. Discuss in the Military 3D Printing forum at 3DPB.com.