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China’s Largest Missile Maker Using 3D Printing to Accelerate Production

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One thing about war is that militaries are never just in conflict with one another solely on the battlefield itself. Indeed, during the forty-plus years of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers never confronted each other directly. Instead, America and Russia competed in a whole host of ways outside the scope of active combat. This led to a situation wherein each society was essentially an experiment for developing the most cutting-edge approaches to modern warfare. Sometimes the grounds for competition were immediately related to battlefield preparedness, such as each nation’s development of its own body armor technologies. In other instances, like the space race, the relevance to warfare was somewhat more abstract.

In the “new” cold war, between the U.S. and China, we see much the same spectrum of more and less explicitly combat-related projects. The main difference is that military intent is, if anything, more obviously built into the design of everything both societies concern themselves with than it ever has been. In this sense, given the application over the last several years of additive manufacturing (AM) to just about every military objective you can think of (including missiles) it’s no surprise that China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), the nation’s largest missile producer, is utilizing AM. 

One example highlighted in a recent China Daily article was a missile rudder, typically machined from metal billet, resulting in material waste. A senior technician at CASIC’s Third Academy, Zhang Chunu, told China Daily, “It takes about one to two months for dozens of technicians and workers to manufacture a gas rudder (used on a cruise missile) with traditional machining methods because it involves a succession of processes like casting and welding. …But now, with 3D printing technology, a handful of workers can make a rudder within a week. The 3D-printing-enabled procedure can save us a great deal of labor, time and cost, and is much better than mechanical machining when it comes to weight and accuracy control for our products.”

Image courtesy of CASIC.

Again, this is not so surprising, given similar AM outcomes reported by makers of American military hardware, who have increasingly adopted advanced manufacturing techniques in their production processes. On the other hand, there’s a bluntness and honesty about the stakes at hand here that you don’t usually get from the aforementioned American reports. If — considering the context — one can’t call that honesty refreshing, it at least helps put global current events into perspective. The idea of an “arms race”, so central to the Cold War, never disappeared, and is in fact now being put into practice in the starkest possible fashion.

Zhang cited other advantages to AM, as well, including the smoothness of the surfaces achieved, and better production efficiency, but on the whole, the advantages all basically amount to speed. An engineer with the company claimed that the 3D printing enabled the increase of the “raw material utilization rate by dozens of times” for large missile parts. He further said that a division within CASIC, the Third Academy, is the largest AM user in China’s aerospace industry. Beyond rudders, the company is using AM for cruise missile parts that include engines and fuselage panels. CASIC’s engineers will work with the academy’s designers to rely on AM for future missile concepts, as well.

“Designers can consider which components are suitable to be ‘printed’. This technology can give engineers more space for imagination and innovation and allow them to design advanced, sophisticated components that would be difficult for traditional methods to manufacture but easy for 3D printers,” Zhang said. “It is no exaggeration to say that 3D printing technology will revolutionize the design work of missiles.”

A maker of such weapons as the LW-30 road-mobile laser defense system and CM-401 supersonic anti-ship ballistic missile, CASIC took in revenues of about $34.7 billion in 2017. The company works with a diverse range of companies based in a variety of countries. This has included providing transporter erector launchers to North Korea, as well as initiating Industry 4.0-style manufacturing programs with Siemens in Germany. Its programs have expanded beyond missiles production to include crewed spaceflight and an industrial cloud. 

Concept art of the HT-1E ship-borne universal vertical launch system in action @CASIC Via Chinese state media.

Concept art of the HT-1E ship-borne universal vertical launch system in action @CASIC Via Chinese state media.

I’ve asked this type of question before, and while it seems almost pointless to ask the in the current opinion climate, I’ll bring it up again: do we really need to constantly increase the rate of missile production? More broadly, is technology actually an ethically neutral sphere of human reality, or did everyone kind of just decide to believe that because it was the most convenient solution? In other words, if humanity truly wants to take control of its own future, people are probably going to have to start taking a look at the infrastructure in their surroundings and asking themselves if amorality is built into the design.

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