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Creating the Department of Defense’s Largest 3D Printing Repository

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AMR Military

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In a unique initiative that marks a shift in the U.S. defense supply chain, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) partnered with BMNT, an innovation consultancy, to overcome the limitations of traditional acquisition systems. This collaboration has led to the creation of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) largest 3D printable part repository, demonstrating the transformative potential of additive manufacturing (AM) in defense and national security.

The Emergence of a New Era in Defense Logistics

The DLA, responsible for the U.S. government’s most extensive logistics operation, faced a critical challenge: efficiently sourcing 86% of the repair parts required for military bases, vehicles, and weapons. This task was fraught with issues, including the presence of mislabeled, defective, or counterfeit parts. As relayed by 3DPrint.com Macro Analyst Matt Kremenetsky, counterfeit certification documents were recently discovered for aerospace spare parts distributed by AOG Technics Ltd., causing turmoil for major aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, and Safran.

Students from the Advanced Study of Air Mobility Academy are given the opportunity to visit key installations that are at the forefront of defense logistics as part of their course curriculum. Here, they tour the Defense Logistics Agency Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, Eastern Distribution Center located in New Cumberland. Photo by Diana Dawa, DLA Distribution Public Affairs

In 2019 alone, such inefficiencies cost taxpayers approximately $305 million, equating to the cost of three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The traditional process of finding replacement parts has been laborious, taking months as technicians sifted through outdated technical documents and complex engineering diagrams.

Recognizing the need for a paradigm shift, the DLA turned to BMNT for a solution. Founded in 2013 by a group of military veterans in Silicon Valley, BMNT is dedicated collaboration between Silicon Valley and the DoD. The firm relies on specialized tools and processes meant to enable government entities to innovate rapidly and at scale.

BMNT’s approach introduced a new contracting process utilizing Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs). These contracts, exempt from standard Federal Acquisition Regulations, enabled a more agile, problem-focused methodology. The strategy facilitated the quick connection of technology providers to the DLA’s needs, fostering a collaborative environment for the development and deployment of innovative solutions.

A Leap Forward with 3D Printing

Within a month of implementing the new process, the DLA awarded OTA contracts for the development of automatic-scanning rigs and geometric search algorithms. This technology enabled the creation of a comprehensive repository of 3D printable part files, marking a unique achievement in the DoD’s inventory management.

The new OTA process both streamlined the DLA’s parts sourcing as well as expanded its supplier base by incorporating thousands of U.S. manufacturers into the defense supply chain. This expansion, coupled with the ability to manufacture parts on demand, significantly reduced the time required to source parts from over three months to less than two weeks.

The Broader Defense Manufacturing Context

BMNT’s efforts with the DLA represent yet another important change taking place in the U.S. and global manufacturing supply chain. As detailed in the “Additive Manufacturing for Military and Defense: Market Analysis and Forecast” report from Additive Manufacturing Research (AMR), the DoD and associated manufacturers are in the process of digitizing their production techniques as a means of ensuring supply chain resilience in the face of global challenges, whether they be pandemics or military conflicts.

According to the AMR report, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) direct spending on 3D printing is projected to be approximately $0.5 billion in 2024. This figure significantly underrepresents the total spend, as it does not include labor, which more than doubles the cost. A recent Department of the Navy (DoN) AM project with a budget of about $15 million allocated only around $4 million to direct purchases of hardware and materials, with the remaining $10 million going towards labor, facilities, ancillary equipment, and other items. This implies that for every dollar spent directly, there are likely another one to three dollars in indirect expenditures. Furthermore, the direct spend on AM in the DoD is anticipated to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23%, reaching nearly $1.5 billion by 2030, with the fastest growth expected in metals.

The shift towards more agile and innovative solutions, as exemplified by the DLA’s collaboration with BMNT and the creation of the largest 3D part repository in DoD history, aligns with this growing financial commitment to AM. This trend not only signifies the DoD’s prioritization of advanced manufacturing techniques but also highlights the potential for significant cost savings and efficiency gains in the long term.

A Digital Arms Race

The U.S. isn’t the only country that is working to ramp up its digital manufacturing capabilities. In addition to its allies in the U.K., Canada, and Australia, nations the world over are pouring billions into AM and related technologies. Perhaps the fastest growing segment is in China.

As described in a 3DPrint.com PRO article, the U.S. has been able to cultivate a strong academic foundation and attract global talent in AM. The country leads in academic research related to AM, reflected in a higher H-index and a significant inflow of international AM students, including from China. This academic prowess translates into a robust industrial application of 3D printing technologies, with the U.S. commanding the largest share of the global industrial 3D printer market at 33%.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Defense is heavily investing in AM, with spending projected to approach $1.5 billion by 2030. This growth is a testament to the increasing reliance on AM in defense logistics and operations, highlighting the strategic importance of 3D printing in national security.

China, on the other hand, has demonstrated a remarkable lead in several critical and emerging technologies, including AM. While slightly trailing the U.S. in academic impact, China has made significant strides in the commercial sector. Notably, it has established dominance in the low-cost desktop 3D printing market, with over 120 manufacturers exporting 90% of their 3.2 million units sold in 2021 overseas.

Chinese companies, such as BLT, are not only rapidly growing in revenue — with BLT’s revenue surging by 66% to $140 million in 2022 — but also expanding their global reach. BLT alone claims a market value of approximately $2.53 billion, making it more valuable than any other publicly traded AM firm. These companies are also increasingly involved in defense-related projects, suggesting a broader application of their AM capabilities.

This divergence in focus is striking. The U.S. remains a leader in high-end, industrial-grade 3D printing, leveraging its strong research base and substantial industrial install base. China, conversely, has successfully captured the low-cost market and is rapidly advancing in the industrial sector. Chinese companies are challenging established global players through aggressive growth and expansion, signaling a shift in the global 3D printing landscape.

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