The use of 3D printing in the Australian military is becoming widespread. It all started a few years ago when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government announced a AU$200 billion ($148 billion) investment in the country’s defense industry, including millions of dollars intended for specific projects leveraging additive manufacturing (AM) technologies.
One of them was a 12-month trial program designed to test how feasible it was for soldiers to deploy large-format metal 3D printers in the field and on base. Announced in February 2020, the $1.5 million project was done in collaboration with Melbourne-based metal AM company SPEE3D, using the company’s large-scale, award-winning WarpSPEE3D capability, which uses a patented cold-spray technology for faster part production. After months of work, the Army has proven it is, in fact, possible to 3D print and replace armored vehicle parts in the field.
During the Exercise Koolendong—an annual planning and field training activity between the US Marine Rotational Force stationed in Northern Australia and the Australian Defence Force—various parts of an M113 fully tracked armored personnel carrier were replaced with metal parts manufactured on-site. Soldiers used SPEE3D’s robust, deployable technology to 3D print the parts, which were then post-processed, tested, certified in the field, redesigned, and fortified to reduce the risk of future damage before being subsequently installed on the vehicles.
Throughout 2021, SPEE3D has been helping train the Australian Army’s first military Additive Manufacturing Cell (AMC) technicians, specializing in the production of metal 3D printed parts from design, printing, machining, and heat-treatment, all the way through to certification. The duo recently tested the WarpSPEE3D tactical printer as part of its toughest trial yet. The printer was transported 600 kilometers from the base, over rough terrain, to the Bradshaw Field Training Area, remote bushland in the Northern Territory, to operate in hot and dusty conditions for three weeks.
During the test, the AMC produced more than a dozen different replacement parts for the M113. One of the parts created was a wheel bearing cover, which is often damaged by trees when driven through bushland. The two-kilogram component was printed in just 29 minutes for $100. For the SPEE3D team, this is not a big surprise since the company’s tactical printer is known for building metal parts up to 40 kilograms at record rates of 100 grams per minute.
Commenting on the feat, SPEE3D’s CEO Byron Kennedy said this is an excellent example of how “expeditionary metal 3D printing” can improve defense readiness. SPEE3D worked closely with the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy to bring this capability to the Australian Defence Force with world-first field trials designed to test the feasibility of deploying metal 3D printing as a capability, both in the barracks and field. In fact, during 2020, several field trials resulted in over 50 case studies of printable parts demonstrating that SPEE3D’s WarpSPEE3D printer was deployable and robust enough to operate in the remote Australian bushland.
At the time, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Combat Service Support Battalion (1CSSB), Lieutenant Colonel Kane Wright, valued the benefits of custom-made solutions in the tactical environment. He also highlighted that bespoke parts, designed and printed in the field, means soldiers can get equipment back into action quickly and return it to its primary role on the battlefield.
The military expert explained that this type of technology could strengthen the supply chain, making it possible to create what is needed at short notice and proving that soldiers can take control of the whole workflow to create the spare parts they need.
“Our tech-savvy soldiers now have the skills, and the technology from SPEE3D, to lessen the administration and logistics burden – to be their own solution without reaching back to base or a traditional commercial manufacturer,” Lieutenant Colonel Wright said.
With this, the Australian Army has completed its biggest, longest, and toughest metal 3D printing trial yet. The new milestone and successful practice demonstrate that technology can play an essential part in defense readiness. However, the Army is still exploring and understanding how these manufacturing processes will eventually fit into its infrastructure. Moving forward, the AMC will research more components that can be repaired using metal 3D printing as an alternate solution, having parts at the ready in the field all the time.
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