Clemson and US Army Research Laboratory to to 3D Print Munitions and Parts via Digital Lifecycle Platform


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Clemson University in South Carolina is set to receive funding from the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) to accelerate the adoption of 3D printed parts by the U.S. military. The two will work together to create a Digital Lifecycle Platform to speed up the time it will take engineers to design and simulate 3D printed parts.

“Researchers said that they will create a ‘digital lifecycle platform’ augmented with artificial intelligence as part of the project. The idea behind the platform is to help production engineers more quickly and inexpensively design, analyze and fabricate a wide range of large and complex geometry components with embedded multi-functionalities, such as ground and air vehicle structures with power transmission, energy storage, sensing and self-monitoring functions, for achieving overall size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) efficiencies.”

In U.S. defense parlance, SWaP-C is a catch-all term for any number of redesign projects that aim to reduce the weight or size and the reduce of power drain by a part, assembly, device, or vehicle. Essentially this means that the Army wishes to use a semi-automated 3D printing software to iteratively improve the functionality and redesign of parts and spare parts in use. An aspect of this functionality will be to perform testing and finite element analysis or similar simulation.

Expressly this points to this development being made in order to accelerate “aftermarket” parts or to improve and change a device to fit a new war theatre. A classic example would be to up-armor Humvees to meet new and improved threats from improvised explosive devices. They’re trying to formalize, track and accelerate the improvised use of technology that many warfighters already deploy via Duck tape and ingenuity and make it available through 3D printing. Improvised Army labs have already done projects in several theaters in order to assess the efficacy of using 3D printing for maintenance and repair but also to upgrade kit.

If you have the best tank in the world, but it won’t run because some fine sand gets into the engine, then that tank is standing still. In the Gulf War, for example, Apaches were not able to be used as extensively as intended because very tiny dust particles fouled the engine and power units. The world’s premier attack helicopter, sorely needed for antitank and close air support, was grounded and one crashed at least once for lack of an extra set of filters. In war, there will always be unforeseen circumstances and conditions that retard your progress in unanticipated ways. Your enemy will also evolve their tactics and perhaps their gear, as well. Improvisation in the face of this is as old as formalized armies are.

Through 3D printing, such efforts can be accelerated, but the Army of course wants to standardize things and mitigate risks as well as propagate best practices. So, the Army is aiming to formalize, track and codify these countless improvisations by accelerating them through a platform.

The Army is serious about this platform, too, spending $6.3 million now and budgeting $11 million that will be given to the Clemson Composites Center, Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation. Part of the money will go to 3D Systems, who is working with ARL to make its nine-laser, 1m x 1m x 600mm metal 3D printer. This includes the software material characterization and development that will also be done.

Srikanth Pilla, the Robert Patrick Jenkins  Endowed Professor within the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, noted:

“As part of the new project, we will develop a database of raw materials, including metals, plastics and composite materials, that could then be used to train artificial intelligence and create digital models of potential new feedstock materials,”

Qualifying parts and alloys on 3D printers is a major bottleneck, as is matching settings with desired part outcomes. Any development there will speed up the adoption of new materials and the creation of useful parts. Combining this with a coupon testing program will be very worthwhile and will provide the data needed for this database.

Rock Island Arsenal iterations of triggers.

Pilla continued to say:

“The database development as well as validation of the digital life cycle through experimental characterization and testing are enabled using the state-of-the-art infrastructure available at the Clemson Composites Center which includes 3D printers, thermophysical testing equipment, optical metrology, quasi-static and dynamic drop-tower test infrastructure, accelerated aging equipment, high-speed cameras and spectroscopic equipment,”

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster opined that:

“This project between Clemson and 3D Systems highlights the success and the continued commitment of our higher education system to not only provide a highly skilled workforce but to forge important partnerships with our business community that ultimately lead to a stronger South Carolina.”

Stephanie Koch, associate director for DEVCOM ARL’s Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, contributed:

“This collaboration will advance the laboratory’s ability to find new and novel ways to advance the science of advanced manufacturing as well as creating a pipeline of new talent, all towards our mission to  operationalize science for transformational overmatch.”

Operationalizing the science for transformational overmatch will be something that will be a true force multiplier for the US military. On the whole, I’m very worried that our technology is all too useful in military equipment and in war-fighting. 3D printing is a versatile technology that transforms desire, idea, or need into thing-shaped solutions. In some cases, this thing-shaped solution may be a hand grenade. This is something that we have to contend and come to terms with when we consider the impact of our technology on the world. I’d love for our impact to be solely one of improved, better fit-to-purpose things, but I think that we must face the knowledge that our impact will, in many cases, be a literal one.

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