Magazine article National Defense

Military 3D Printing Projects Face Challenges

Magazine article National Defense

Military 3D Printing Projects Face Challenges

Article excerpt

* Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. military's logistics system. But numerous hurdles stand in the way of that dream becoming reality, experts said.

Unlike the traditional manufacturing process, which creates items by taking raw materials and subtracting from them by drilling or whittling, additive manufacturing takes digital data and creates 3D objects by stacking printed layers of raw materials.

Brennan Hogan, a program manager at LMI--a Virginia-based not-for-profit corporation that is consulting with the Defense Logistics Agency about the implications of 3D printing--said additive manufacturing provides an opportunity for "turning the supply chain on its head."

Under the traditional supply system, "you create the parts at a manufacturing base and then you send it to a depot, and then it gets put on a component or it gets sent out into the field," she said during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

"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.

Three-D printing could potentially enable the Defense Department to reduce inventory and storage space, and thereby lower costs, she noted. It could also allow the military to print obsolescent parts that are no longer being manufactured.

As the technology advances, some military leaders want to give 3D printers to depots and deployed troops to facilitate maintenance and operational readiness and save money. The Navy is particularly gung-ho about the technology, having created a "Print the Fleet'" project two years ago to develop procedures for building, qualifying and delivering parts. In recent years, the U.S. military has 3D-printed basic items like oil caps and medical supplies. Going forward, officials envision printing out larger, more complex objects such as aircraft wings or even small drones.

"Soon there will be no physical tether to the supply chain," Vice Adm. Phillip Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, said at an additive manufacturing conference earlier this year, according to a Navy news release.

But integrating 3D printing into the force on a large scale isn't as simple as buying the machines and materials and installing them downrange. Many issues and challenges need to be addressed, analysts and industry executives said.

Jim Joyce, a specialist leader at Deloitte Consulting's manufacturing and operations office, said ensuring quality is the key obstacle.

"What's that hurdle we have to get over in additive manufacturing before we can unlock the sort of logistical revolution? It's really part certification," he said. "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," he added.

James Kenyon, director of advanced programs and technology at Pratt & Whitney, said industry has concerns about the implications of additive manufacturing when it comes to product manufacturer approval.

"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.

"The challenge for us as a manufacturer is that we stand by the quality of our products," he added. "If you start flying around products that have [3D-printed] parts that we can't stand by, then it makes it very difficult for us."

Julie Christodoulou, director of the material science and technology division at the Office of Naval Research, said the service has ongoing initiatives at laboratories and depots to address quality concerns. …

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