America Makes Doles out $1.2M for EARTH 3D Printing Project

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Thanks to consistent funding from the Biden Administration, it’s always Christmas at America Makes, and the U.S.’s flagship advanced manufacturing just announced that it will be granting $1.2 million for the Environmental Additive Research for Tomorrow’s Habitat (EARTH) Project. Funded by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering Manufacturing Technology Office (OSD(R&E)) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), EARTH is dedicated to pinpointing and confirming the suitability of AM designs and materials, ensuring they consistently fulfill the required qualifications and performance standards for end users.

“There is the need to acknowledge the potential environmental impact of AM innovations within the manufacturing industry, even as it invests resources in research and development. We applaud the efforts of the awardees in exploring sustainable approaches for reusing and recycling AM materials and designs. Their initiatives are expected to make a substantial contribution to reducing waste, conserving energy, and mitigating carbon emissions. The forward-thinking of our industry partners demonstrates a commitment to understanding sustainable AM practices which will influence future adoption of the technology in a variety of sectors,” said Brandon Ribic, Technology Director at America Makes.

In the topic area titled ‘Analysis of AM Sustainability and Environmental Benefits,’ the primary focus will be on ‘Accelerating Additive Manufacturing in Department of Defense (DoD) Applications using High-Performance Recycled Polymers.’ This project will be spearheaded by IC3D, a provider of 3D printing filaments and services. Collaborating on this project are notable academic institutions: The Ohio State University and Harrisburg University. Additionally, Mike Vasquez’s 3D printing consultancy, 3Degrees, will bring its expertise to the team. Notably, 3Degrees was previously awarded a $50,000 grant to develop a comprehensive 3D printing materials database.

The second initiative, titled ‘Powder and Process Optimization for Sustainable Additive Manufacturing (POSAM),’ will be headed by the RTX Technology Research Center, a division of Collins Aerospace and consequently, part of Raytheon. Collaborating on this segment of the project are the University of Arizona and 6K Additive. It’s noteworthy how effectively 6K Additive has integrated itself into various U.S. government 3D printing projects. Its success in securing government contracts has been truly exemplary.

It’s encouraging to witness the Air Force and the Department of Defense (DoD)’s deep engagement with recycling and environmental initiatives. Their focus on these areas is not only strategic but also a nod to the reality that our planet is irreplaceable – there’s no ‘Planet B.’

In all seriousness, these projects are much more important than they are cute. The DoD often incurs costs running into tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram for transporting components to frontline troops. Challenges frequently arise in the field, either due to flaws in design or emergent needs when repurposing existing inventory for new scenarios. It’s in these critical moments, often marked by a pressing demand for specific equipment, that the limitations of traditional supply chains become most evident.

In this context, 3D printing emerges as a pivotal solution. Its ability to rapidly produce necessary items near the point of need can dramatically shorten the timeline compared to traditional manufacturing methods, potentially reducing it from months to mere days or hours. Furthermore, 3D printing offers unparalleled flexibility, enabling quick adaptations of existing equipment to meet new requirements or to enhance its functionality. This agility in manufacturing could be a game-changer, particularly in high-stakes environments where timely responses are crucial.

The potential cost savings from integrating 3D printing into military operations could reach into the hundreds of millions. Beyond the economic benefits, consider the operational impact: an aircraft, for instance, could be rendered inoperable without the right part. In scenarios where new threats demand rapid redesign of components to ensure aircraft safety, traditional manufacturing methods might fall short. 3D printing, with its agility and speed, could be pivotal in addressing such urgent needs.

But, what of all the scrap? How often could high-performance thermoplastic ULTEM be used in Material Extrusion? And what happens to the material properties of the parts when they are recycled? What about the same grade of ULTEM but now with short carbon fiber in it, how could you reuse that component? Its reuse, especially after recycling, raises questions about the integrity of material properties. The scenario becomes even more complex when considering ULTEM compounded with short carbon fibers – how does one repurpose such materials without compromising quality or safety?

For polymers and powders, the process of reuse and recycling doesn’t just offer economic advantages; it can be lifesaving and strategically decisive in conflicts. To harness these benefits effectively, the America Makes teams will need to delve into the nuances of material properties, performance, and fatigue. They must also master the art of recycling components in a way that preserves their usability. If these challenges are met successfully, 3D printing could see even greater adoption in military applications, revolutionizing logistics, sustainability, and operational efficiency.

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