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3D Printing & the Military: Squandered Opportunities

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Previous articles in this series have explored the potential for the U.S. to leverage additive manufacturing to its advantage. However, this potential may be undermined by a propensity for creating overly sophisticated solutions rather than effective ones. This issue is compounded by the possibility that these expensive solutions could be matched by more cost-effective products from other countries. If the U.S. focuses primarily on major incentives to stimulate 3D printing, it risks overlooking numerous opportunities. Among these missed opportunities, the most significant could be the chance to transform its business practices.

A B-52H Stratofortress.

Possible Squandered Opportunity 1: Misallocation

In the first post of this series, we provided an overview of several areas where the U.S. could significantly benefit from adopting additive manufacturing. Feel free to revisit that list here.

At the same time, we’ve assumed that the major strategic areas drumming up government dollars are hypersonics, MRO, supply chain resilience, and building the industrial base. Now, imagine for a second someone gave you a billion dollars for each of the above strategic areas and then distributed that money over the points above. Some of the deep advantages would get funded, but many would not. Especially in the area of improvised production and duct tape-like uses for 3D printing. Also, whereas MRO would see a lot of money go to the Navy, it is not clear that the money would end up making new polymer hulls for small vessels. This in and of itself could unleash a drone-like revolution in naval warfare, disrupting existing capital ships. Instead, the US military would use 3D printing to spend more and more money maintaining legacy technology that is to be supplanted. Of the possible squandered opportunities, I’m the least sure of this one. Perhaps the mysterious ways of defense procurement will lead to an allocation of 3D printing where it is transformative rather than it piling on inefficiency over inefficiency. I’ll try to be optimistic about this arena but do think that the potential of piling good money over bad is significant here.

Possible Squandered Opportunity 2: Reimagining Procurement

I once suggested to a friend that the US government should own all the CAD for the vehicles it commissions. It could then farm out production of add-on parts, new vehicles, or repairs to the most efficient bidder. Yes, I was as thoroughly surprised as you were that this went nowhere. However, the greatest threat to the safety and security of the United States is not some terrorist band in a cave somewhere or even Putin; it is the defense procurement system itself. Cost overruns, slow development processes, feature-laden lemons, and vehicles that are all things to no one are harming the safety and efficacy of the United States. The US is still inefficient at procuring weapons, according to the Government Accountability Office, while it spends over $1.79 trillion on those systems. This is equal to the GDP of Australia or Spain. The 13th richest country in the world, all they produce collectively is less than the US spends on developing new weapons per year. The global passenger vehicle market is estimated to be $1.45 trillion and produces around 4 million cars. Or, put another way, this is the revenue of Apple, Walmart, and Amazon combined. The solutions to more efficient government procurement are complex and can be found in better oversight, planning, and framework agreements. This is not something that can be solved in a flourish but would require a complete overhaul or careful optimization over decades. With the rivalry with China heating up and the US being purposely drawn into many conflicts simultaneously, the US does not have the luxury of time, though.

  • The GAO highlights the risks of companies going out of business as a risk to the industrial base. Why not stipulate that the CAD and designs of all military equipment should be the property of the DoD? Why not be like Apple and initiate a relationship more akin to that of contract manufacturer Foxconn with defense contractors? Or why not do it only in those areas where the equipment is essential or a commodity?
  • Currently, there is no stick in any kind of improvement process for defense contractors. They know they are few and will just queue up with three other companies each time you need something. Why not penalize the most egregious offenders or ensure that they perform? Or why not separate the development and manufacturing tasks of new equipment so that more companies can make the process more fair, efficient, and, dare I say it, capitalist?
  • Or why not adopt a Springfield Armory-type approach where, for certain equipment, the US military will produce its own weapons? It can do so efficiently, and this could act as an honest broker, showing the defense community that performance is possible.
  • Why not use additive manufacturing to make prototypes quickly, test them in the field, and then implement them? Instead of trying to create a program that may work for everyone, why not take what actually works in the field, iterate, and scale it up so that it will work for more people?
  • Indeed, instead of huge multimillion or billion-dollar programs, why not focus on what matters to troops and improve that? Or why doesn’t the military examine gaps, lethality, and direct threats to troops and then create small, effective products to enhance the survivability, comfort, and efficacy of the individual warfighter? Piecemeal improvements would be manageable, cost-effective, and could make a real, meaningful impact quickly.
  • Or why not deploy prototypes in the field very quickly to de-risk larger programs?

On the whole, while I do think that the US Defense establishment is embracing 3D printing wholesale, it may not be doing so holistically. They could be using the parts without capturing the advantages of using additive manufacturing as a more flexible manufacturing platform. We have the ability to make the right shape at the right time and place with unique properties. The advantages of 3D printing are only truly unlocked if you use the technology to actually produce things more efficiently, cheaply, and faster. The New Space companies are not only using additive because we make better combustion chambers; they’re doing so because we do this quicker and less expensively than other technologies as well. It is through adopting more agile engineering approaches and using 3D printing to make the right parts correctly that the true value of our industry will come to the fore. And to me, the biggest squandered opportunity lies in the fact that the military could be making parts without becoming more efficient and transforming the way it develops new equipment.

Now, before we toot our own horns, we must acknowledge that we are untried in many areas and ourselves a fickle technology in many respects. The Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), for example, was delayed for nine months due to a delay in procuring two 3D printers needed to make the oil tank and other structures. Perhaps, rather than being more efficient, we should just charge more too, and then we’ll fit right in?

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