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How are Different Branches of the US Military using Additive?

How are different branches of the US military using additive manufacturing? Here are some past and present additive manufacturing projects across the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines:

Legacy Parts, On Demand

What happens when aging military equipment and vehicles need parts that are obsolete? This is an ongoing issue faced by all six branches, and a lot of time and effort is being put into finding ways to solve the problem.

  • In 2020, the U.S. Army needed more hatch plugs: devices mounted on combat vehicles to help soldiers see during low-light missions. The original vendor had discontinued the part, and the replacements would require a three-month lead time and cost $10K to produce. The Army used additive manufacturing to solve the problem. In a few short days, they 3D printed two versions of the part using different materials at a fraction of the cost.
  • The Airforce Lifecycle Management Center regularly uses 3D printing to manufacture obsolete parts for a number of legacy fighter jets including fleets of B-52s, the massive C-5M Super Galaxy, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber.
  • The Army Materiel Command (AMCOM) began working with a team from Wichita State University in late 2020 to dismantle and scan every part of a Black Hawk helicopter for 3D printing. Other branches in AMCOM are undertaking a similar task and assessing 48K ground vehicle parts and 98K communications and electronics parts for 3D printing.

Less (Weight) is More

It’s not unusual for a single soldier to carry between 90 to 140 lbs worth of gear, including weapons, ammo, water, MREs, batteries, and personal protective equipment. That’s a lot to manage, especially in a high-stress situation. And soldiers aren’t the only ones burdened by additional weight. Increased weight in transport vehicles, planes, and ships can decrease fuel efficiency and reduce maneuverability and speed. As a result, the military has a lot of interest in developing ways to lower weight without sacrificing performance.

  • The Army Research Laboratory is currently working on making a variety of new, lightweight vehicle parts — brackets, propulsion systems, weapons, and turret components — with additive manufacturing. They are investigating lightweight metals such as titanium, titanium alloys, and hybrid ceramic tile composites for their Next-Gen Combat Vehicles (NGVC) program.
  • Earlier this year, the Army Research Laboratory partnered with a team at the University of Central Florida to improve the additive manufacturing of a high-strength magnesium alloy by increasing the density enough to make 24 micro-lattice structures. The material has the potential to produce lightweight mission components typically carried and used by soldiers in the field.
  • After a few years of successfully using AM to replace obsolete parts in legacy aircraft, the Air Force has now turned its focus towards rolling out flightworthy hardware for in-use military engines, aircraft, and support equipment. The Air Force is particularly interested in the increased durability and decreased weight of 3D printing with AM materials. After all, less weight means more speed and lower overall fuel costs.

Bigger, Better, Faster

The military has a longstanding interest in using AM technology to quickly create very large, durable parts. The need for bigger items is always greater in the field where vehicle replacement and maintenance or short-term shelters definitely come in handy.

  • Earlier this year, the U.S. DEVCOM Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) launched its Jointless Hull project. As part of this project, the GVSC is developing the largest 3D metal printer in the world to manufacture single-piece hulls and other large parts for military ground vehicles. When complete, the massive 3D printer is expected to print metal items up to 30’ L x 20’ W x 12’ H. There is also a smaller version of the printer in the works for development work to support the larger machine.
  • In late 2019 — and in under 36 hours — members of the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton used quick-drying concrete to 3D print a bunker large enough to hide a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher system.
  • Not to be outdone by the Marines, this year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a deployable 3D printer that can quickly create shrapnel-resistant concrete structures like buildings, small bridges, bunkers, and gatehouses.

Rugged, durable 3D printers can be deployed to print parts as needed at remote locations.

Printing in the Field

In an effort to move from form to function, all branches of the U.S. military are exploring more efficient and effective ways to 3D print anywhere in the field whether on board a ship at sea or at a remote base camp.

  • The U.S. Navy and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) are exploring ways to use AM to design, print, approve, and install critical or obsolete parts while at sea. This will allow crews to 3D print parts and tools on-demand to reduce part production costs and repair time. A recent example can be seen aboard the USS Tulsa where Navy sailors now have access to 3D printing technology and, thanks to training provided by the Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University, they know how to use it. The crew members were taught how to set up, operate, and maintain 3D printers. They were also taught computer-aided design techniques and how to use precision scanning equipment. Once at sea, they will have the opportunity to practice their new skills on the ship by 3D printing various components.
  • Meanwhile, across the pond in France, the Marine Nationale (French Navy) launched the largest 3D printed metal propeller installed on an in-service military ship in January of this year.
  • Researchers at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) have taken recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from leftover bottles and plastics and used it as a material in a fused filament fabrication (FFF filament). Eventually, the plan is to let U.S. forces 3D print replacement parts on demand while in the field using discarded battlefield plastic waste like water bottles, milk jugs, and more.

* For more about the Air Force and its use of additive manufacturing, take a look at one of our earlier blog posts, Additive Manufacturing with Composites in Aerospace and Defense.

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