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What the Military Industry Needs from Additive Manufacturing

The use of additive manufacturing is growing in the military industry, as it offers a number of advantages that can benefit manufacturers in the field.

One of the main advantages of additive manufacturing is the ability to produce complex shapes and geometries that are difficult or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing methods. This is particularly useful in the military industry, where many parts and components have complex shapes and designs that require precise specifications.

For instance, recently Lockheed Martin has announced the successful shipping of its first two 3D printed cockpits for its F-35 Full Mission Simulators. "The unique capability of 3D printing to produce complex geometry reduced Lockheed Martin’s overall part count of conventional metal parts required to assemble the F-35 FMS cockpit by 70%. This results in fewer opportunities for defects and fewer failure points for the entire assembly." You can read more about all the achieved improvements here.

Thomas Insights - Lockheed Martin 3D Prints F-35 FMS Cockpit

Additive also allows for greater design flexibility and faster prototyping, which can speed up the product development process and reduce time-to-market. An example for this is the allegedly UK developed “3-D printed delta wing suicide drone” that could be deployed by Ukraine against Moscow. The RAF (Royal Air Force) is also said to have been working on an aerial attack unit using 3D-printed drones.

Additionally, it enables small batch sizes and customized parts on demand, which is important in the military industry where certain parts and components may only be needed in limited quantities or for specific applications. Features like the Flows AM's Model Library make it immediate and reliable to reorder parts for production, based on CAD and print parameters. This can result in cost savings for the DLA, as well as faster and more efficient response times to emergencies and critical situations. By leveraging 3D printing for customized parts, the military can enhance their overall supply chain operations and improve the efficiency of logistics and procurement processes. For example in 2022 the Air Force in Virginia 3D printed a piece in a few hours that was needed to bring crucial refuelling equipment back in service after almost a year of stagnation.

There are certainly many advantages to additive, but there are also many challenges and considerations that still need to be addressed when implementing 3D printing in the military industry. Some of these have also been discussed at the Military AM Summit held in Tampa at the beginning of February.

The lack of standardization in additive is a big consideration for the military industry. As the program manager of the U.S. DARPA Defense Sciences Office (DSO) says, “the big problem with printing now is the materials properties are quite different from what you find in bulk material and they change during the build of the part, primarily due to the thermal history”. This makes it difficult to satisfy the original requirements of structural integrity and to ensure consistent quality across all parts. Thus, there is a need for development of standardized testing and quality control measures to make sure that all parts are of the highest quality and meet military standards. Solutions like Flows AM provide end-to-end workflow management, including monitoring and QA, ISO compliant.

Another challenge is security concerns. The military industry is highly sensitive to security issues, and additive manufacturing has raised some concerns in this area. 3D printing files can be easily shared, which raises the risk of intellectual property theft, and the potential for the unauthorized duplication of critical parts. Just recently, "3D Systems Corp agreed to pay up to $27 million to settle with the U.S. for illegally exporting to China controlled designs for military electronics and spacecraft". Thus, the development of secure file transfer and access control protocols to prevent unauthorized use of 3D printing files is mandatory.

The high cost of 3D printing equipment, materials and skilled labor is also an issue for the industry. While it’s been going down in the past few years, it can still be more expensive than traditional manufacturing, particularly for large scale production. For example very small parts are beyond DMLS as “melting those little beads creates a relatively rough surface that needs machining or shock/laser peening”, so it may not necessarily result in the lowest cost production piece.

Despite all the challenges, the military 3D printing sector is expected to be worth 1.7b by 2027. While addressing these issues and working to develop standardized testing, quality control, and security protocols, military manufacturers can reap the benefits of 3D printing technologies that are "increasingly finding their place within the defense sector".

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