In our last article on the GovDesignHub, we featured an interview with Aaron LaLonde, PhD, a Additive Manufacturing Subject Matter Expert at the United States Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVCS), about a recently-announced project called the “Jointless Hull Project.”
This is a revolutionary program that involves the development of the hardware, software and technologies necessary to effectively “print” a vehicle structure. If successful, the program could open the door to the construction of better, lighter and safer ground vehicles for the Army.
To learn even more about the program, discuss some of the challenges it faces, and explore some of the exciting ways that the military could leverage this technology in the future, we sat down with Jason Gorey, the Executive Director of the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America (ASTRO America), which is partnering with the Army for this project.
During our discussion, we asked Jason why 3D printing is a better alternative for ground vehicle parts, how other military branches could benefit from this technology, and what he sees for the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in the military.
Here is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub: Can you tell our readers a little bit about ASTRO America? What does the organization do, and how did it get its start?
Jason Gorey: ASTRO America was established in 2018 as a research institute and think tank dedicated to advancing the public interest through manufacturing technology and policy. ASTRO got its start when the Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned it to study key U.S. hypersonic supply chains, and develop plans for accelerating production of the world’s fastest aerospace platforms.
Since then, the organization has grown, convening leaders of government, industry, and academia to examine complex manufacturing challenges and managing research and development projects for U.S. government agencies.
GovDesignHub: Why is the military so interested in advanced manufacturing, and why is ASTRO America so determined to increase its adoption across the DoD? What benefits can the military get from advanced manufacturing? How will it improve their operations?
Jason Gorey: The DoD is the world’s largest consumer of manufactured goods. It relies on vast U.S.-based supply chains to build its fleets of vehicles, aircraft, ships, and satellites, among countless other goods. These products need to be built to last far longer than their civilian counterparts, and endure the harshest of environments.
However, the military is a “monopsony.” They are the sole or dominant customer for highly specialized vehicles and equipment with limited supplier options. Because of this, the government must constantly monitor the state of its Defense Industrial Base. DoD’s acquisition policies must not only ensure fair product-pricing but determine whether its supplier base remains innovative, competitive, secure, resilient, and timely—especially among the small/medium sized companies providing factory equipment, parts, or services to other subcontractors or prime contractors.
For this reason, DoD has for decades championed applied research that integrates new advanced manufacturing technologies into defense industry factories, effecting significant production efficiencies – driving down weapon system costs and part lead-times. According to the DoD Annual Industrial Capabilities Report, these manufacturing solutions save the taxpayer billions of dollars and ensure the warfighter retains access to the most advanced technologies available.
ASTRO America’s team is largely comprised of personnel with extensive experience in both government and manufacturing industries. As trusted advisors to industry and government authorities, we continue to survey technology trends in key supply chains, and then help the government and industry make smart investment decisions in manufacturing processes, materials, and economic development.
GovDesignHub: What is the Jointless Hull Project? Why would the Army want to utilize additive manufacturing to create the hulls of military trucks? How would a 3D printed hull be better than one made the traditional way?
Jason Gorey: The Jointless Hull Project is focused on developing manufacturing processes to enhance protection of Army vehicles’ underbodies, which has long been among the most challenging tasks facing military tank and automotive users.
“This project’s purpose is to oversee new manufacturing methods that build novel hull bodies that can balance extreme requirements for thickness, weight, and affordability.”
– Jason Gorey
Aluminum underbody protection systems have been a central protection piece for ground mobility vehicles since World War II. Approximately 73 percent of all vehicle losses during the Vietnam War were from anti-tank mines. And a vast number of modern casualties still result from limited protection to underbody blasts, showing that we have the same issues as we had more than 70 years ago.
This project’s purpose is to oversee new manufacturing methods that build novel hull bodies that can balance extreme requirements for thickness, weight, and affordability. To establish appropriate parameters for the project, ASTRO America first focused on understanding the limitations of conventional manufacturing methods and then helped the government identify and apply new processes that can improve upon traditional production.
“Such a tool will be revolutionary because it allows manufacturers to develop geometries that cannot be built in any other way.”
– Jason Gorey
Together, we are building the world’s largest metal hybrid manufacturing system, including additive – 3D printing – and subtractive techniques, with a build volume of 30ft long x 20ft wide x and 12 ft tall.
Such a tool will be revolutionary because it allows manufacturers to develop geometries that cannot be built in any other way. Rather than rely on defect-inducing processes for joining multiple assemblies, the Army could use this 3D printer to develop a single underbody with complex geometry that is unattainable through any other production method.
For example, instead of heavy structures, this tool could provide design freedoms to build a single, large, light-weight mesh— combining features necessary for vehicles to be able to both sustain blasts and drive with agility – unlike today’s Army vehicles that are weighed-down with densely built underbodies.
GovDesignHub: What technological hurdles need to be overcome to make the Jointless Hull Project a reality?
Jason Gorey: There has never been a metal 3D printer this big before. Risks associated with this project involve integrating appropriate control software with a unique metal processing system and massive gantry which will be affixed to the factory ceiling.
ASTRO has confidence in the designed system and materials since it is based on tried-and-true processes that have performed well on a slightly smaller scale. The largest hurdle we foresee is gaining acceptance of this manufacturing method within DoD supply chains.
For this reason, ASTRO is also partnering with lead systems integrators that currently manufacture vehicles for the DoD – including tank and automotive vehicle prime contractors. In this partnership, we will work with engineers from their organizations as well as the DoD to fabricate design concepts they currently have but cannot build by conventional means.
With the entire supply chain working together, we believe that we can overcome these hurdles.
GovDesignHub: It was just announced in April that ASTRO America would be managing the Jointless Hull Project. What is the timeline for the project? What has been accomplished in the three short months since it was awarded?
Jason Gorey: As with any complex supply chain, the Jointless Hull Project is a team-effort. Our Jointless Hull team consists of the U.S. Army Development Command Ground Vehicle Systems Center, U.S. Army Rock Island Arsenal Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence, Ingersoll Machine Tool, Siemens Digital Industries, MELD Manufacturing, LIFT and ASTRO America.
Ingersoll has expertise in the development of production-grade and one-off large-scale manufacturing equipment. Siemens Digital industries is supporting controls and software portions of this project, MELD manufacturing is supplying its proprietary metal Additive Manufacturing technology and engineering expertise, LIFT is a Manufacturing USA institute focused on lightweight technologies, and ASTRO America, serves as the Army’s principal Defense manufacturing and supply chain advisor/manager.
This project does not just involve building one large machine. The project will also deliver a smaller machine with the same processing characteristics as the large machine. The smaller system, called the “sub-section tool,” will be used by DoD scientists and engineers to develop materials and processing parameters for easy transition to the Jointless Hull machine.
In the short time since contract award, ASTRO America has helped the Army bring together the best possible team, ensure all long lead-time items have been ordered, and initiate tool assembly. The sub-section tool is planned to be delivered in Q2 of 2022, with the install of the Jointless Hull tool planned for Q4 of 2022. All timelines and schedules are currently on track to meet those dates.
GovDesignHub: Are there other applications for the technologies and processes that will be created as a part of the Jointless Hull Project? Are there other vehicles this could be used for?
Jason Gorey: While we initiated this program to help solve the underbody protection issues that we discussed, the Army appears open to leveraging this capability for a variety of applications, including restoring and/or repairing metal components that are difficult to source.
“…imagine the large 3D printer’s applicability for development and repair for naval ship components, aircraft bodies, munitions, and space platforms. The potential utility for this tool seems endless.” – Jason Gorey
This is a major problem throughout the Defense Industrial Base, not just in the Army.
Other supply chains have also taken notice of this initiative as well. Indeed, the Army is not the only military service that relies on multi-part joints for its hulls and large-scale subsystems— imagine the large 3D printer’s applicability for development and repair for naval ship components, aircraft bodies, munitions, and space platforms. The potential utility for this tool seems endless.
GovDesignHub: We often hear about additive manufacturing as being a more efficient manufacturing method, but there is another benefit – enabling more advanced, creative designs that weren’t possible with other types of manufacturing. Do you anticipate generative design and other AI-inspired designs making their way into the government and military? What role does additive manufacturing play in making these designs possible?
Jason Gorey: Definitely. Additive Manufacturing allows for fabrication of novel design concepts, which will broaden the operational envelope of manufacturing, including future design methodologies.
As the tool is built and we engage the lead system integrators, we are looking forward to hearing of their ideas to get the most from this new manufacturing process.
GovDesignHub: Aside from the Jointless Hull Project, what other exciting additive and advanced manufacturing projects is ASTRO America currently working on? What projects are coming up in the not-too-distant future?
Jason Gorey: Through both its research institute and think tank, ASTRO America is working with technology leaders in government and industry to address critical supply chain vulnerabilities exposed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than rely on an outdated and disaggregated network of part suppliers across the globe, our studies, policy summits, student fellowships, and research projects are helping identify and apply new advanced production tools that will create highly skilled jobs and innovative “factories of the future.”
While we are unable to divulge our next series of projects at this time, we will be making an announcement this fall regarding a new set of initiatives specifically aimed at these challenges– to address both America’s national security and long-term economic development.