US Department of Defense Contracts ExOne for Shipping Container 3D Printing Factories

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Shipping containers are becoming popular concept for easily deployable 3D printing factories for militaries globally, from the Netherlands to the U.S. The latest company to become wrapped into the trend is The ExOne Company (Nasdaq: XONE), who has been awarded a U.S. Department of Defense contract to create a self-contained 3D printing “factory” housed in a shipping container.

Through a $1.6 million contract from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), ExOne has begun creating a 3D printing pod to be set up in a standard shipping container, up to 40 feet long. The goal is to deploy the pod by land, air or sea anywhere the U.S. is pursuing its aggressive military objectives. With over 1,000 military facilities in 80 countries, representing 95 percent of the total bases in the world, that could be nearly anywhere.

The pods would be used to produce parts, such as spare components, to support military operations. Not only are they meant to be easy to deploy, but also easy to operate with a minimal amount of technical knowledge. This means that ExOne will be working to simplify the use of the pod through software and training and the development of a special “military-edition” of its binder jet 3D printing technology.

The upgraded commercial system will still be capable of printing with over 20 different metal, ceramic or composite materials, as is possible with other ExOne machines, but will be made rugged, with a unique body style and other features.

“Binder jet 3D printing is a critical manufacturing technology for military use because of its speed, flexibility of materials, and ease of use,” said John Hartner, ExOne’s CEO. “We’re excited to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Defense and other partners to make our 3D printers more rugged for the military, which will also benefit our other manufacturing customers. Most importantly, we know that years from now, our technology will play an important role in filling critical needs quickly.”

In order to develop the rugged 3D printing container more quickly, ExOne will be roping in several partners. Dynovas is a Delaware-based firm with expertise in materials, engineering, composites production, and weapons. Applied Composites – San Diego (AC-SD) is a provider of composite parts, assemblies, tooling, and engineering for the aerospace, space and military markets.

In particular, the project will rely on AC-SD’s Reinforced Additively Manufactured Compression Assisted Molding (RAMCAM) system. Not much information is yet available about RAMCAM, except that it was developed under a 2016 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the DLA. The abstract for the grant states: “RAMCAM combines the advantageous 2 day lead time of custom parts produced by 3D printing with the 1 day forging of structural parts via composite compression molding. RAMCAM has cross-cutting applicability to a number of market segments including: on-demand replacement of obsolete structural parts, on-demand replacement of damaged structural parts, reduced inventory management, improved corrosion resistance and lifecycle costs, and low cost production parts.” With the second phase of the grant, the company sought to automate the process further.

As noted, ExOne is not the first to embark on such a project. The U.S. military has been talking about such an idea for some time and has executed it in a variety of iterations. Among the most developed early demonstrators was the X-FAB, a collapsible shipping container-style box that contained several types of 3D printers. The Dutch Navy recently revealed its own containerized factory, which included an INTAMSYS high-temperature 3D printer.

Nor is such a concept limited to military applications. Molyworks demonstrates one of the most interesting uses of containerized factories with a shippable facility for recycling metal scrap into 3D printing powder. MilleBot and 3DPrinterOS have developed a containerized 3D printing factory. Bionic Production GmBH wants to offer a flexible variety of shipping container factories to customers.

While it seems as though the military uses of such setups is now inevitable, it’s possible that we could see the same concept used for peaceful purposes, as well, such as in disaster relief scenarios. Regardless of whether they are used to wage war or rescue victims of climate catastrophes, such a deployable factory could 3D print spare parts in less than two days, compared to the four to six weeks likely required for receiving a replacement made traditionally.

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