The U.S. military and government agencies are constantly looking for public sector best practices and exciting new technologies that they can implement to help increase efficiency, improve operations, and cut costs for the taxpayer. And few technologies are more capable of making the government and military more effective and efficient than 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
We continue to hear about exciting new use cases for 3D printing across the government and military – from making strong, resilient, light-weight parts for NASA that will make space travel and exploration possible, to making replacement parts for aircraft that can help keep America’s Air Force flying.
With so many diverse use cases for the technology – and the limits of what’s capable with additive manufacturing extending to the far reaches of the human imagination – it’s no surprise that a recent infographic by DLT, Autodesk, and MeriTalk illustrates that the global market for 3D printing will surpass $50 billion by 2025.
To learn more about the different use cases for 3D printing that we’re seeing in the government and military, and to talk about some of the exciting advancements in the technology over the past few years, we sat down with a 3D printing expert – Blaine Duke of Autodesk.
As a Product Specialist Sales Executive at Autodesk Blaine is focused on helping the company’s customers implement the software that makes the design and fabrication of new products possible. In this capacity, he has worked hand-in-hand with government agencies as they evaluate and implement new 3D printing technologies and begin additive manufacturing programs.
During our discussion, we asked Blaine about how the technology has evolved, how it’s being used, and where he sees it going in the future. Here is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): For many people, the concept of 3d printing and additive manufacturing may only conjure images of people online sharing small, novelty products they’re printing out of plastics and epoxies. Can 3d printing and additive manufacturing do more?
Blaine Duke: 3D printing has actually been around for some time, the first time I saw 3D printing in action was probably 20 years ago when I was at Tulsa Technology Center in the Manufacturing lab. They were using a liquid polymer that would solidify with a bright beam of light. They were working on a project that took scan data from a dinosaur museum and printing the fossilized bones of a Triceratops. They could paint the 3D printed parts and use them in the museum for kids to handle and not risk damage to the ancient fossils.
3D printing has come a long way since then. Depending on the application, the medium being used to print can be plastics, cement, wax, sand, alloys, and many other materials. We’ve seen the introduction of manufacturers like BeAM that offer industrial metal additive machines capable of helping customers with modern metal additive solutions. And we’re seeing increasingly large-format 3D printing applications, including some large format metal printing projects being spearheaded by the U.S. Army.
At Autodesk, we have worked with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on large generative design parts that use 3D printing technology. There have even been bridges that have been 3D printed. As the technology continues to improve, we’re seeing the use cases for 3D printing increase exponentially, the size of printed parts grows, and the ecosystem of materials expands. With many of our customers now using Fusion 360, it has allowed users to easily design and model parts for 3D printing.
GDH: When we’re talking about government organizations that make things, one of the leading manufacturers and consumers of manufactured products is most likely our military. How could 3d printing be used in the Department of Defense?
Blaine Duke: I work closely with the DOD and they are using 3D printing for many things. For example, the Marines have worked on 3D printing barracks with concrete. The Navy has even provided basic PLA plastic printers (the most widely used plastic filament printer) to engineers to just make things. It’s helped them all to think about how to improve a design and become “Makers.”
By empowering engineers to 3D print parts, the Military has come up with a number of ideas and cost-saving solutions. Buckle replacements on a helmet, door latches on an airplane and even dryer knobs that break can be printed and replaced on a ship – whereas before they might have been using a set of pliers or some other unconventional method.
Ultimately, 3D printing is saving the Department of Defense (DoD) money on parts that can be made quickly instead of ordered from a manufacturer – which could cause major delays and slow down the process of getting equipment back up and running.
With 3D printing, there is also less waste. I was working with the Marines on a project involving a mobile machine shop used to support the warfighter on the ground. You don’t know what is going to break down, it could be a tank, Humvee, aircraft – you name it. And only so many parts can be stocked – others have to be ordered in. This can cost lives and valuable time.
Using the 3D printers in the mobile shop, they would print the basic shape of the broken part in metal and then machine the part down. Basically, they would print the stock shape and then machine away very little material to fix the broken-down equipment, saving time and money. Compare that to machining a part from – say – a solid block of material, and the time and cost savings become apparent.
GDH: What about other organizations in the government? Are there use cases and markets for additive manufacturing in civilian agencies? How could you see additive manufacturing making its way into other areas of government?
Blaine Duke: Almost everyone is using additive manufacturing now. With 3D printing. the way parts are manufactured has totally changed the way things can be engineered and made.
For example, NASA uses it for lightweighting parts that go into space. The Secret Service and FBI use it to make discrete devices for monitoring and surveillance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has used it to print illustrations of the COVID virus. It has been used heavily for medical training in pre-surgery to print a replica of a tumor that may need to be removed, allowing them to practice on 3D printed organs and tumors before working on a patient.
The uses grow each day and there are no limits.
GDH: At Autodesk, you undoubtedly see some of the most innovative and exciting use cases for these advanced manufacturing technologies. Can you share any exciting, private sector innovations that you could see making their way into the government or being used by the government in the coming years?
Blaine Duke: Honestly, the government is on top of 3D printing now. Government agencies work closely with universities and have invested heavily in the current technology for 3D printing. And this will only accelerate as the technology becomes better, more pervasive, and less expensive. It will also accelerate as new and exciting applications and tools that make 3D printing better and more effective enter the marketplace.
Equipment to 3D print in metal is very expensive, but something that will get less expensive as the technology advances. Heat and distortion can be a problem, so having a good simulation package like Netfabb helps prevent wasted bad prints that take time and use expensive material. All of these advancements will make the adoption of 3D printing across the government accelerate and expand.
GDH: Autodesk is obviously not a manufacturer of 3d printers and hardware. So, what role does Autodesk play in advanced manufacturing? How are the company’s products and solutions enabling this revolution in manufacturing?
Blaine Duke: We provide software solutions that communicate with 3D printers, simulate prints, provide support and latticing structures, nesting of parts for production, design, and modeling, and reverse engineering tools to send to 3D printers for manufacture.
Autodesk has invested in software technology and development to support current and upcoming 3D printers that come to market. We even have our own Make facilities where we test and use the technology.
At Autodesk, we’re working closely with our partners and customers to stay on top of the technology and provide the software tools and solutions that will help them make the most out of it.
GDH: What is generative design? What can harnessing AI and machine learning bring to the product development, fabrication, and creation process? Have we seen government organizations embracing generative design technologies to date?
Blaine Duke: Generative design is a form of artificial intelligence that leverages the power of the cloud to create better outcomes for products, buildings, infrastructure, systems, and experiences. It utilizes algorithms, machine learning, and computational geometry to quickly explore multiple solutions to a design problem. Generative design yields a wide range of alternatives that are optimized and validated by satisfying the various criteria a design must meet while accelerating the entire design-to-make process.
It allows manufacturers to explore hundreds of designs in less time than they could deliver a single concept using traditional processes. It allows engineers to specify the functional requirements of a product, along with the constraints of the manufacturing process at their disposal, to deliver results that have been validated for functional performance, manufacturability, and manufacturing cost.
In doing so, it reduces the need to pass designs back and forth, yielding a shorter time to market, reduced costs, and a greater range of innovative solutions. It allows human experts to focus their time on assessing which design options best meet their requirements for all phases of product design and manufacturing.
JPL is one example of Generative design currently being used for projects related to space. The technology is starting to be used more widely.
GDH: How widely adopted has advanced manufacturing been in the government? Are there organizations or sectors within the government that have embraced it more quickly than others? How does adoption compare to – say – the public sector? How do you see this changing and trending into the future?
Blaine Duke: I would say it’s in all branches of the military and most of the departments. The military has been the quickest to embrace the technology and has had a big focus on additive manufacturing over the last two years.
The public sector was quicker to adopt additive manufacturing, but I think the government has quickly seen the benefits of what it is doing for them. As 3D printing continues to develop and get better it’s going to allow for a lot more customization that will cost a consumer and the government less money for parts that are made.
Many more exciting innovations will come as a result of 3D printing. It’s an exciting time and fun to see what people are doing with this technology.
GDH: The world is obviously dealing with some very interesting and challenging problems right now – the most pressing of which is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How has additive manufacturing been leveraged in this pandemic? Has Autodesk done anything to make the production of PPE easier or more efficient since the pandemic started?
Blaine Duke: It has been a very interesting year, indeed. When COVID first started there was a shortage in masks and shields for hospital and medical personnel.
3D printers were used to quickly print masks and, suddenly, everyone became an expert in facemask designs and these files were shared to the public. This made it possible to quickly create and customize PPE. You could take an existing design and put your favorite sports team on it if you wanted.
Soon after the pandemic started, the CDC reached out to the different branches of the government and private enterprises to get parts and PPE printed. There was an incredible response across the government and private industry. Even automotive manufacturers were helping in the efforts to quickly manufacture parts that save lives.
With 3D printers, it’s easy to configure for and fabricate any type of part. Whereas, in traditional manufacturing, retooling for production can be very expensive and time-consuming. The ease of tooling up production using 3D printing made it possible for nontraditional PPE manufacturers to chip in and make a real difference right away.
At our tech center in Birmingham, UK, Autodesk has been producing PPE devices to help with the pandemic. We also have a dedicated web page where customers can find open-source design efforts, ways to share their design ideas, and information about how to find manufacturers.
And our customers are also leveraging our technologies to make a difference.
Our customer, 3-Dimensional Services Group, based in Rochester Hills, MI, helped produce face-shield headbands for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Another of our customers started the Ventilator Project which worked to design a high-quality, low-cost ventilator to help with the nation’s ventilator shortage. We’re excited that our technology and solutions played a role in helping meet the nation’s PPE and ventilator shortages.
To learn more about today’s advanced manufacturing solutions, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the infographic.