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3D Printing & the Military: It Takes a Village to Make a Nuclear Bomb

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In previous installments in this series, we explored how the U.S. military is preparing to utilize additive manufacturing (AM) technologies. Then, in another article, we discussed the idea that possessing the finest technology and training may not suffice if faced with “good enough,” more widely available solutions, especially in scenarios involving delaying actions or against an entrenched enemy. Now, we turn our attention to the broader perspective of the U.S. military’s strategy against near-peer adversaries. This installment focuses on how, from a governmental standpoint, the U.S. is adopting 3D printing for military purposes.

Industrial Wedding Cake

From a helicopter view, the most notable and resonant themes at the White House level include supply chain resilience, maintenance and repair, new shapes, and the industrial base. The emphasis on the industrial base has emerged as a particularly vocal point recently, attracting significant attention from Capitol Hill due to its appeal to a wide range of political interests. The prevailing narrative suggests that the U.S., once a nation of makers and engineers producing steel, wire, engines, and other substantial products, has shifted towards a workforce more engaged in creating PowerPoint slides, leading to a perceived decline in manufacturing capabilities. Unions, the worker, or—if you’re on the other side—the Dagny-loved unencumbered entrepreneurs that built this country unite for a brighter future. Therefore we need to, especially in my district, strengthen the industrial base through lots of subsidies.

We need to give billions to chipmakers to relocate to the United States and we need to stimulate mom-and-pop manufacturing outfits so we can make all of our own war-fighting and industrial needs right here in the US of A. It’s beautiful: what else could possibly combine pork barrels with subsidies, nationalism, pride and gifts to donors in quite the same way? What’s more it is served with a side of hope and drenched in patriotism. If we paint the pork barrel red, white and blue, perhaps it will feed all of our future hopes and dreams.

However, the issue with strengthening the industrial base is that it means throwing subsidies at uneconomical industries. We’re not talking about some lathe at Old Hickory Bats producing the heritage line in the old way. If it were only simple products made from raw materials, it would be fine, but we’re talking about many processes, materials, steps and manufacturing relationships globally. Let’s take one extremely simple item: wire harnesses. Made up of tree shapes consisting of a variety of connectors and wires are usually assembled in low-wage countries and then shipped to slightly higher wage ones where they are put into the final product.

The skills and investment required for manufacturing wire harnesses are relatively low. However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia highlighted a critical vulnerability when many companies faced production halts due to a sudden loss of harnessing capacity. This situation prompts a crucial question for the US: What steps should be taken? Should there be an investment in digitizing wire harness technology to enable rapid domestic production in times of need? Or should the government subsidize a US-based wire harness factory indefinitely? The experience of mask companies shutting down in 2023, with others closing earlier in 2022 and 2021 due to local competition, illustrates the challenges involved. Providing financial support is a straightforward short-term solution, but ensuring a firm maintains technological capability in the face of cheaper foreign competition presents a more complex problem.

The “restore the industrial base” advocates have yet to offer a coherent strategy for addressing these challenges. The current approach appears to be focused on subsidizing the problem, but with the vast array of technologies and the intricacies of determining which sectors to support, the task becomes daunting. Questions arise, such as whether to prioritize the domestic production of monomers always or only under certain conditions, and when it might be acceptable to rely on production in Canada and Mexico. Deciding which parts of the industrial base are critical to maintain is a complex issue.

It takes a village to make a nuclear weapon: paint, ore, parts, wire, chips are sourced from a global network of suppliers and then assembled into complex products around the world. This global interdependence highlights the risk of spending money without genuinely enhancing long-term capabilities. For some, however, the continuation of financial support without addressing underlying structural issues may be the desired outcome, as it ensures the perpetuation of their “gravy train.”

A Raytheon 3D printed demo missile.

A Raytheon 3D printed demo missile.

Supply Chain Resilience

Supply chain resilience is a very similar chorus with many of the same people behind it. Supply chain resilience is a very good idea, it’s only the practice that is lacking. How exactly do you achieve it? What should you be able to make? What be too costly to not make? Do you have to replace all of your production? Do you have to have one, two or three alternatives to all of your output? Or just some key things? What do you have to make close to home exactly? Apart from the photogenic talked about examples such as rare earth minerals, there are legions of choke points in the global economy. How do we identify them? Or do we for the sake of supply chain resilience built the whole thing in the US, always?

Image courtesy of CASIC.

MRO

At any one time, half of the US Navy is under repair, and this occurs without any external attacks. With soaring repair costs and durations often extending beyond initial estimates, the entire Navy system is teetering on the edge during peacetime. After Pearl Harbor, the US repaired the battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee, as well as the cruisers Honolulu, Helena, and Raleigh, before mid-1942. The ships Nevada, California, and West Virginia were refloated by June, with the Nevada joining convoy duty in October of 1944. The West Virginia participated in the Battle of Leyte and Iwo Jima after repairs. These ships had been hit by 10 bombs or five torpedoes respectively and had sunk. Current Navy ships, which are much more complex, featuring more electronics and mixed systems with firmware, software, and much more, will be costlier and more difficult to repair compared to earlier battleships. Meanwhile, the Zumwalt class ships would probably take longer to have cupholders installed. There would be a significant advantage for the US if it employs additive manufacturing, even to a slight extent, in maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO).

We’re Hyper about Hypersonics

Hypersonics, on the other hand, is shaping up to be a heretofore rarely conceived subsidy and incentive bonanza. Few things will end up paying for more fully loaded Toyota Tacoma TRDs and tasting menus than hypersonics will. The battle for the ultimate high ground will require AM to create difficult shapes in challenging materials. We can also develop new alloys on our machines and produce items faster than other processes. The more “death ray” the marketing blurb, the more the US will spend money on it. And we need additive manufacturing to implement hypersonic weapons effectively.

In total, we can see that a lot of work will go towards 3D printing in the military. However, if we compare the original advantageous areas of 3D printing with the big things attracting investment from the government, we can begin to see some disconnects. And we have to acknowledge that, however considerable the US’s investments in additive manufacturing will likely be, it might be a squandered opportunity.

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