Defense Official: Pentagon is “Turning a Corner” in 3D Printing

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Just after the Pentagon made announcements of $270 million in new spending for US advanced manufacturing efforts in a span of less than ten days, Keith DeVries, the deputy director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program (OSD ManTech), suggested that the Department of Defense (DoD) is hitting an inflection point in its additive manufacturing (AM) capabilities. DeVries made the comments while appearing in a webinar hosted by the online publication Defense News:

In the context of discussing the US defense industrial base’s improved capabilities in metal AM, DeVries said, “Those advancements have been fundamental unto themselves. Now, it feels like we’re turning a corner and we’re trying to find what the sweet spot is for how big of a build volume is appropriate for us to apply that technology.” DeVries also pointed out, “We want to treat [AM] as a tool in the toolkit, and we want to apply it exactly where it’s necessary, and where it adds the most value.”

It may seem like this is no different from any number of similar statements endorsing AM that US defense officials have made over the last year. However, three things make this statement so notable. First, the source: as deputy director of OSD ManTech, DeVries is responsible for running day-to-day operations of one of the agencies within the US government most critical to the development of emerging technologies. Along these lines, DeVries is certainly one of the highest-ranking US defense officials to go on the record with an assessment of US progress in 3D printing.

A 3D printed deck drain assembly slated to be installed on a Virginia-class submarine. Image courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries

Second, the timing: speaking of high-ranking defense officials going on the record, DeVries’ comments came right after one of his bosses, William LaPlante, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, told an audience at the Center for a New American Security that, “We just finally last month got [Ukraine] these industrial-size 3D printers.”

These comments came about a week after LaPlante, on a panel at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference, said (according to National Defense), “[AM] is being used to produce parts in aircraft engines; car companies are using them for mission critical parts. …And what’s happening — and we’re seeing it in Ukraine — is it’s also changing how sustainment is done.”

The AM Coordinator Chief at the US Navy’s Southeast Regional Maintenance Center (SERMC), Nicholas Heinrich, holds a 3D printed tool for the MK Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS). Image courtesy of DVIDS, SERMC, and Scott Curtis

On the same panel, Air Force General Anthony Cotton, the commander of US Strategic Command, said that US capacity to deploy AM for production bolsters “all of those factors [that] come into play when you talk about strategic deterrence.” In other words, he confirmed the idea that AM is a main event, not a sideshow, in the US’s intensifying economic competition with China.

Third, and finally, the context: although Defense News is a familiar forum for Pentagon personnel, the fact that a DoD official said this to a news organization cannot have been accidental, but rather confirms the pattern of a deliberate media blitz by the defense establishment on behalf of AM. The Pentagon wants everyone, especially US companies and the Chinese government, to know that the US economy is prepping for big changes. This is what the “war” between the US and China in fact is, most fundamentally: a competition for investor dollars. In turn, it seems highly likely that the Pentagon will continue to make its case for 3D printing in increasingly mainstream settings of the world’s biggest battlefield, the digital media landscape.

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