One of the most exciting technological advancements in today’s military isn’t a mobile device, or an application, or even an immersive AR application that delivers real-time intelligence to warfighters on a heads-up display. It’s a simple aluminum bracket.
That may sound like I’m giving an “employee of the month” award to an inanimate carbon rod, ala C. Montgomery Burns. But let me explain. What’s so exciting about a simple piece of aluminum? It’s not the bracket itself that’s the exciting part – it’s how it’s fabricated.
That simple bracket is exciting to the Air Force when it’s cheaply and efficiently 3D printed out of strong, resilient materials, especially when it’s an important part of a military aircraft that would traditionally require 16 hours of work to machine out of a solid piece of aluminum at a cost of thousands of dollars.
This is why additive manufacturing and 3D printing are the subject of so much attention and focus across the military today. These new technologies have the potential to shave significant cost and time off the creation of important military products and parts.
The promise of additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing techniques and tools is well articulated in a recent infographic released by DLT, MeriTalk, and Autodesk, which illustrates the growth of the market, as well as some of the exciting use cases for the technology across the government.
Let’s take a detailed look at some of the reasons why adoption of this technology is growing so rapidly, and highlight some of the encouraging early projects that are raising eyebrows across the military and government.
Fix it faster
The United States Department of Defense spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year acquiring the weapons, vehicles, and supplies necessary to ensure that our warfighters are outfitted and ready should they need to respond to a threat, natural disaster, or global emergency. These tools, weapons, and equipment are part of what makes America’s military the best and most prepared fighting force in the world.
But what happens when those tools, weapons, and other pieces of equipment fail in the field?
When you consider the difficulty and work required to get a military vehicle or tool from the United States to where our soldiers are deployed – often on the opposite side of the globe – you recognize that anything that is sent over with our deployed warfighter is most likely deemed essential for the mission. The same can be said for what warfighters carry with them. The average soldier can be asked to carry more than 100 lbs, so it makes sense that soldiers would look to only carry the essentials in an effort to lighten their packs.
If what is deployed with a soldier – and what a soldier carries with them – are only the most important and essential things, any equipment failure effectively means that something essential is now out of commission. This is something that the mission requires that is no longer available for a warfighter that may need it.
In the past, this meant either machining a part or ordering that part from somewhere back home. Should that part need to be ordered, that order would have to be processed, the part would need to be fabricated or located, and then it would have to be shipped halfway around the globe to where it was required. That’s a long time that the warfighter has to wait for something essential. If it was a part such as a metal bracket, it could potentially be machined onsite, but – as we discussed – that can be a time-intensive and costly practice.
The ability to 3D print that part in the field is a better, faster, and cheaper alternative to ordering or traditional machining. In fact, the bracket that we’ve been alluding to is not part of a rhetorical situation or an example we made up. That bracket is an actual real-life example of how 3D printing can and is being used to help create replacement parts for aircrafts.
The story of that bracket was shared with the GovDesignHub by Tech. Sergeant Ryan McBride of the U.S. Air Force, who was spearheading a program to 3D print replacement hydraulic pump brackets for the C130 aircraft.
According to Tech. Sergeant McBride, “On average, we fabricated about 8 to 10 brackets per year – machined from a block of solid aluminum. That is just here at Little Rock AFB. There are several bases with C130 aircraft that struggle with the same bracket failing.” And the switch to 3D printing was about more than speed. By 3D printing the bracket out of aluminum, the Air Force is generating, “…a cost savings per part [of] about $3,800 over purchasing or machining.”
The opportunities presented by 3D printing extend well beyond quickly making replacement parts in theater at a discounted price. Additive manufacturing, generative design, and other advanced manufacturing technologies can also help the military develop new solutions more quickly and create new products, designs, and materials that previously didn’t exist.
New technologies breed new approaches
While additive manufacturing can effectively make something more quickly and effectively than traditional manufacturing and machining practices, the real beauty of today’s advanced manufacturing solutions is their ability to make things that were never possible before or previously conceived.
Using generative design, advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) can look at the desired result that an engineer is looking to achieve and come up with unique and new ways to achieve it. This may mean a new, innovative design or structure that may have not been considered before.
The creation of new and previously impossible things is further advanced by additive manufacturing. By adding thin layers of material, the fabrication of complex designs that may have been impossible through other, more traditional methods is suddenly possible.
Dr. Brandon McWilliams, a researcher at the Army Research Laboratory, explained just how powerful and game-changing this could be for the military in a recent Q&A about an exciting large format additive manufacturing program.
“Hard materials, such as armor steel, are very difficult to manufacture into complex shapes, which is why most legacy combat vehicles, and structures on/within them, resemble a box and are not streamlined at all,” he said. “You are essentially limited to what you can create by welding together plates or paying a premium to machine these hard materials. By printing these hard materials, it opens up the design space to reduce weight, reduce manufacturing costs, and increase performance of these systems.”
The ability to expand the limits of what is possible goes beyond just finished products. Advanced manufacturing solutions – including generative design and additive manufacturing – are also being used to create new materials that may not exist or be in use yet. Together, the ability to fabricate new and exciting concepts and identify new or previously unutilized materials is opening doors to solving complex problems facing the military.
As Steven McKnight, the vice president for strategic alliances at the Virginia Tech Hume Center recently explained to the GovDesignHub:
“…let’s say you’re designing a radome that involves analyzing the electromagnetic, and structural performance with available materials. These often have competing performance requirements. You can use [advanced manufacturing] tools to optimize materials – including new materials – performance and geometry. The design tools also integrate manufacturing considerations and help optimize producible and testable solutions.”
With so much potential to revolutionize what the military makes and how it makes things, it’s no surprise that the newly released infographic shows the demand for advanced manufacturing growing exponentially across the government. Today’s new tools and technologies are going to make it possible for the military and government agencies to innovate new solutions, new products, new tools, and new materials to make them out of – increasing efficiency, improving operations, and solving problems that have plagued these organizations for decades.
To learn more about today’s advanced manufacturing solutions, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the infographic.
Featured image courtesy of the Navy, taken by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rawad Madanat.