AMS Spring 2023

US Army Robotically Delivers 3D Printed Tank Part in Project Convergence

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At the beginning of 2021, the Pentagon released a 20-page document with the characteristically bland name “Department of Defense Additive Manufacturing Strategy.” The gist of the document was the DoD’s announcement of the establishment of a whole host of groups dedicated specifically to working on specialized technical issues related to AM, which would be centrally coordinated by a new sub-agency—the Joint Defense Manufacturing Council (JDMC)— also announced in the report.

In the document, the authors state, “The Joint Defense Manufacturing Council will allow Senior DoD leaders to align resources and share information to maximize the value of manufacturing to maintain DoD’s strategic competitive advantage. The JDMC will align modernization priorities and manufacturing efforts to impact the readiness of the Department today and the future of the Nation’s defense.”

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Johnathan Ellis working on a 3D printer in preparation for Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. (Image courtesy of DVIDS)

This was followed up by a document released in June, titled “Use of Additive Manufacturing in the DoD.”

The first policy listed in the June document states that “[The DoD will seek] to use AM to support joint force commanders and CCMD theater requirements, transform maintenance operations and supply chains, increase logistics resiliency, and improve self-sustainment and readiness for the Military Services.”

Both of these documents represent major steps in the Pentagon’s implementation of a major 2018 restructuring of how it carries out research, development, and acquisition in high-tech industries, including not only AM but also aerospace, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The release of a heavily-redacted US Navy audit came immediately after the June policy statement, in which the Pentagon drummed up fears of our nation’s vulnerability to infiltration of our military’s AM infrastructure—always an integral part of increasing the budget devoted to a given area.

Now, as part of the military’s Project Convergence, which seems like part war games, part old-fashioned world expo, we’re seeing all the years of study, investment, and logistical restructuring come to fruition: in Yuma, Arizona, the Army has just tested its ability to 3D print a spare part for a tank, which was then delivered to the tank on the “battlefield” by a semi-autonomous robot. The Army refers to its AM operational support capacity as R-FAB, or Rapid Fabrication via Additive Manufacturing on the Battlefield.

Soldiers in New Jersey working on an early version of R-FAB in 2017.

In a video, Melanie Smith, a capabilities director for the US Army, says, “3D printing gives us an ability to print parts forward, whereas we may not have them readily available or may not be able to get them in the supply chain somewhere in combat or far forward.”

This is, obviously, only the beginning. We may wonder if it’s something that should be happening, but the military essentially creates its own reality, and it started doing so on this front years ago. In the electoral political arena, the “debate” over military spending—it’s more like complaints from a few people here and there that we don’t throw as much money at other things as we do at the troops—is finally starting to heat up once again, but it would’ve been nice if this happened 20 trillion dollars ago. The truth is, a supply chain crisis is happening across the planet, no one seems to know what to do about it, and yet somehow the military has been fortuitously preparing for this exact situation for almost a decade. This is obviously pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking talking, but wouldn’t it have been nice if the US military had told someone?

The US Military helpfully depicts its ongoing plans to dominate the universe.

Of course, it did tell people; the military just has its own indirect, convoluted way of communicating, called the Defense Appropriations bill. Anyone who has been studying this even remotely closely has likely been noticing for years that increasing amounts of spending are being devoted to solving explicitly industrial problems rather than explicitly military ones. These “solutions,” as a part of the larger high-tech infrastructure, are now being highlighted by Project Convergence. When people complain about the military budget, though, they complain about the biggest-ticket items, rather than focusing on the nuances: the fact that an F-35 costs astronomically more than a 3D printer obscures the landscape.

Again, it would be nice if public participation actually played a role in these decisions, but that ship seems to have sailed long ago. So what can people who care actually do? It’s hard to say practically, at this point, aside from (sigh) voting with your dollars, so that any societal shift toward 3D printing will at least result in some significant proportion of the industry being devoted to things like creating more sustainable, alternate supply chains relative to the amount spent on defense. But in the meantime, it would probably be helpful if people started focusing on the fact that the military works twenty years in advance, and interpreting the moves it makes seriously, so that hopefully a better-informed public can eventually exist.

(Images courtesy of US Army unless otherwise noted)

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