Sep 30, 2016 | By Alec

Could 3D printers be going to war? It certainly seems that way, as 3D printing is increasingly being adopted by the military branches of governments around the world – mostly as a spare part manufacturing tool. The US Marine Corps (USMC) is a particularly big believer in this 3D printing application, and just this year, the Marines of 1st Maintenance Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group, announced that they were using 3D printers to produce replacement parts for broken equipment. This summer, the USMC revealed to be breathing new life into obsolete and broken aircraft through 3D printing. But now the Marines are taking things even further, as it has just been revealed that they have successfully tested 3D printed munition.

This test took place at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head, Maryland, last week and was initiated by the Marine Corps’ Next-Generation Logistics office. That same office also 3D printed the munition, though they declined to say exactly what they tested. Captain Chris Wood, the co-lead for 3D printing for Deputy Commandant of Installations and Logistics Lt. Gen. Michael Dana, did reveal that the test was the first of its kind and was very successful.

The captain further revealed that the 3D printed munition proved to be more lethal than conventional alternatives, with tests showing that the system and its lethality can be even further increased through 3D printing upgrades. At the same time, the technology could make the weapons safer for marines to use and more surgical in their impact, Wood said. “One of the benefits of being able to precisely control the way that a munition or warhead is 'grown' through [3D printing] is that we think we'll be able to tailor the blast and associated fragmentation to achieve specific effects for particular targets, heights, collateral damage, or even environmental considerations,” he explained. “Some of this can be done currently with very expensive, hand-made munitions, but [3D printing] allows us to do it better, faster and likely cheaper.”

Specifically tailoring munition is just one of the tasks of the ‘NexLog’ office, which was set up to explore the potential of emerging technologies for the Marine Corps. However, the impact of developments like 3D printing could take up to 20 years to be felt, Wood added. “So if I don't start my experimentation and my advocacy for those things now, I'm not going to be able to really capitalize on what they can offer when they mature. We are fully aware that it's expensive, and it's not as mature as we want, but that's exactly why we think now is the perfect time to strike so we can figure out this very protracted capabilities development process,” the captain said.

But the timing of 3D printing could not have been better, as numerous Marine Corps vehicles are aging rapidly and are in need of new spare part solutions. 3D printing could be a cost-effective way to manufacture those parts that are no longer in production, such as for the Marines’ light armored vehicle. Although originally intended to be out of service already, it is now expected to remain in use until 2035. “Where production has been done for 20, 30 years, and they don't even assign [national service numbers] to some of these parts because they don't expect them to ever be replaced because they don't plan for that piece of equipment to go beyond that life cycle,” Wood explained. “That presents a huge challenge for program officers.”

But Wood isn’t only talking about metal 3D printing, as cheaper polymer 3D printers could provide quick in-field solutions that can extend mission effectiveness by a few hours. “Rather than using duct tape and coat hangers and gum and all these other things, which literally occurs in the battlefield, we have this new design tool we can use,” Wood said. In fact, 3D printers are already being adopted for that very purpose. About 10 USMC units are already using 3D printers, most of whom are maintenance battalions. However, Wood revealed that some Special Operations Command units now also have 3D printing capability. While not yet 3D printing more bullets or gun parts, they are using it to produce things like small plastic radio crypto keys - $2 each to 3D print, but $70 when purchased as standard equipment.

Its savings like this that have convinced the USMC leadership to promote 3D printing even further, and earlier this month an administrative message was released that urged commanders at the rank of lieutenant colonel and above to adopt 3D printed replacements for non-critical equipment parts – specifically those parts that are obsolete and don't require a data rights clearance for reproduction.

The same message also laid out a path for the commissioning of other 3D printed materials, and stipulated on specific requirement: that all parts are 3D printed in bright, non-standard colors so that their manufacturing origin is easily recognizable. “Our equipment program managers wanted to be certain that it was clear to any Marine which components might be printed on their equipment,” Wood said. “This allows them to handle the component appropriately, know to report it if it fails unusually and generally track it uniquely from other components due to the nascent nature of the Marine Corps exploration of additive manufacturing.” Both non-standard green and yellow are acceptable.

As for metal 3D printing, Wood believes that the supply chain necessary for permanent production will take another two decades to mature. The recent success with a MV-22B Osprey featuring two 3D printed mission-critical titanium parts (an engine nacelle link and a stainless steel lever) underlined several difficulties, as the project was labor intensive and required extensive testing and qualification. The 3D printer they used also cost about $900,000, so that is not something adopted lightly. However, these successes with 3D printed munition will doubtlessly lead to more comparable projects. “We plan to do that soon as possible,” Wood concluded.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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