Dec 4, 2015 | By Alec

Over the past few years, the military branches of various nations have been slowly adopting metal 3D printing technology as a cost-effective solution to quickly manufacture a wide range of parts. Just a week ago, the South Korean air force was revealed to be using 3D printed parts for new fighter jet engines. And while that is good news for the metal 3D printing industry, can they also count the world’s biggest military spender – the US – among their clientele? While the US military has been investing in numerous research projects involving metal 3D printing, a new report by the National Defense Magazine quotes numerous experts that say that the application of metal 3D printed parts in the military are still facing numerous obstacles.

That is not to say, however, that the US military isn’t seeing the benefits of 3D printing. According to Brennan Hogan of defense logistics consultant LMI it has the ability to make the entire manufacturing process far more streamlined. ‘If you push the entire supply chain forward and you actually put the machine in the field and you’re printing in the field, you’re … truncating the entire process and meeting the need exactly where it is,’ she said during a panel discussion. Reducing inventory and storage costs are also evident advantages, and particularly the Navy has been very interested in the technology for those reasons. The Print the Fleet project, which is seeking to develop 3D printing workflow for the Navy has been ongoing for more than two years now. The US military has also been 3D printing a number of basic items already.

So how long will we have to wait for 3D printed aircraft parts, drones and more? While it is definitely forthcoming, according to Vice Admiral Phillip Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, there are some obstacles. ‘It’s really part certification,’ says Jim Joyce of Deloitte Consulting. ‘If I make a part on my machine, can I replicate that process and all its detail and results on another machine and be sure that I did it [precisely]? Once you crack that code … you really unleash this technology.’

At the same time, however, overall product quality is still an issue, says James Kenyon of Pratt & Whitney. ‘The problem you run into, particularly with aircraft systems, is that there are certain characteristics of those parts that you have to have — its material properties as well as qualities such as surface finish. … If you don’t have them, that part can fail, and when it fails, it will be spectacular and not in a good way,’ he said. 

That is right now one of the key issues the industry is working on, argues National Defense Magazine. ‘We’re working toward building the confidence in those capabilities and really working to understand how to qualify parts for use,’ they quote Julie Christodoulou of the Office of Naval Research. ‘There’s a number of different variables that affect the quality of the component, and we’re spending resources and time to understand how to work with those variations and ultimately predict the capability of the components.’

At the same time, the most immediately useful military application – 3D printing aboard ships – is facing technological challenges. How, after all, does the salty conditions and ship movements affect the quality of 3D printed parts? It is currently making certification of parts by the Navy very difficult. ‘We can pretty well routinely provide mechanical properties that meet or exceed those of a cast product” such as a simple valve, Christodoulou said. It’s more challenging and indeed at this point impractical to meet properties equivalent to those of a wrought product, one that’s gone through forging or … had some sort of thermal mechanical processing after the casting.’

And then there are still the legal issues surrounding 3D printed parts, particularly in the field of intellectual property concerns. Deloitte has previously said that the Pentagon has failed to license the technical rights of countless items for decades meaning that legal issues need to be settled before parts can be 3D printed. ‘As a result, the [Department of Defense] will not be able to adopt [3D printing’s] full promise quickly,’ they say.

In fact, Joyce argues that 3D printing is increasingly breaking down barriers between what is and isn’t legally protected – good for the civilian community, bad for the military. ‘You’re going to see the rise of imitative individuals and companies that are producing … obsolete parts and then frankly, going into mainstream parts as we start to sort out what is protected and what isn’t protected legally,’ he said. ‘Manufacturing increasingly becomes a commodity where folks can just get in. They don’t need as much money. They can set up a very capable machine shop and manufacture things that traditionally were done by very large defense companies.’ Metal 3D printing, however, will remain ‘where it’s at’.

Furthermore, the digital supply chain that feeds 3D printing will need to be protected against cyber warfare. ‘It’s going to be a digital supply chain, so the military will be sending CAD files to their 3D printers that are forward deployed. Those designs could be manipulated’ said Jennifer McArdle from the Center for Revolutionary Thought at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. This means training the users in safety, as well as in 3D printing, requiring countless specialists. According to Troy Johnson, director of the new Navy cyber division, that area is still very vulnerable – what if a compromised drive is used on a 3D printer?

But even once all these issues are worked out, the magazine expects that 3D printing won’t suddenly take over the bulk of the production line – as can be expected. ‘It’s not going to be used for everything,’ Christodoulou tells them. ‘There is still going to be some components that are just best made by traditional routes. More complex systems certainly are going to be taking advantage of [3D printing ] more and more. It’s going to come back to the economics of the process and the properties that you want.’

All in all, this means large scale use could be ten, fifteen, twenty years away, says Hogan. ‘The most effective way of applying the technology would be in a modest incremental way,’ he explains. This means updating the design software (which is more suitable for works of art than for military applications) and working closely with industry specialists. While 3D printed military applications are thus certainly forthcoming on a large scale, patience will be required. ‘I think it is a longterm trend,” Christodoulou concludes in agreement. ‘It’s a very exciting tool that is given to the engineer, and I think that as we begin to understand the capabilities and the limitations it will be used more and more broadly.’



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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