While each branch and organization that comprises the U.S. military is responsible for different domains and face different challenges, there is one challenge that every branch faces – the expensive and slow process of developing, maintaining, and repairing critical military assets and systems.
It’s no secret that the optimization and ruggedization of military aircraft, vehicles, and tools are critical during manufacturing. But no matter how well-crafted and optimized an asset outcome can be, when deployed in the field for testing or warfighting, there is always the possibility that it will break down, malfunction, or need new capabilities that would require the precise installation of a manufacturer.
This is why it is imperative for the U.S. military to identify new manufacturing capabilities and alternatives that can expedite the development, repair, and replacement of mission-critical assets in theater.
Enter advanced manufacturing – the innovative remedy for expensive and sluggish military supply chains. Through emerging technologies like additive manufacturing and digital engineering, the military is now capable of creating and storing digital replicas of both new and legacy assets, which is enabling the 3D printing of replacement – or even newly developed – parts at fractions of the cost and time that traditional manufacturers and supply chains require.
To learn more about all of the different use cases and benefits advanced manufacturing can deliver to the military, the GovDesignHub recently sat down with Mitchell Meinhold – a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff of Draper, which was recently awarded a contract by the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center, which is focused on protecting military technologies by way of additive manufacturing.
Here is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): For our readers who may not be familiar, what is Draper? And what does it do?
Mitchell Meinhold: Draper is a nonprofit engineering innovation company that specializes in the design, development, and deployment of advanced technological solutions. The company leverages additive manufacturing capabilities that enable designs that otherwise cannot be built. We pride ourselves on taking on and solving some of the nation’s biggest problems.
GDH: What is Draper’s background in the advanced manufacturing and additive manufacturing fields? What notable research has Draper conducted/produced in those areas?
Mitchell Meinhold: Draper operates in various spheres of additive manufacturing, including published research, company-sponsored R&D, and engineered solutions for customers. Additive manufacturing, often implemented by 3D printing, is versatile, flexible, highly customizable and, as such, can suit many military and industrial technology applications.
One of our goals at Draper is to translate R&D into fieldable systems. A few examples: we have built and integrated 3D-printed antennas and sensors directly into satellite and aircraft structures rather than attaching them to the exterior of the system. Also, we have developed nano-layered-materials that successfully addressed the high-current density needs of drones, robots, and flexible RF antennas. The mini-boom in new 3D equipment and materials available on the market has certainly supported our efforts.
“Military applications of additive manufacturing face a particularly high bar if they are going to be modified for the battlefield. Products must be ruggedized, fit the warfighter, as well as be hardened and secure.” – Mitchell Meinhold
Besides churning out fieldable systems, Draper engineers and scientists publish a steady stream of research that provides additive manufacturers with their own path forward. In chemistry, we developed a new material that enables direct ink writing of reactively formed conductors. In 3D printing, we refined a set of additive manufacturing tools that can simultaneously print both the structure of a part as well as the integrated electronics. In rapid prototyping, we equipped a 3D printer with a conductive metal-based multi-material ink that could serve as a form of sprayable electronics for printed circuit boards and other electronics.
GDH: Other than cutting costs and lead times for the repair and replacement of critical assets, why is the military interested in additive manufacturing? What challenges does it solve? And what different benefits does it provide to the military, and how will it improve operations?
Mitchell Meinhold: Military applications of additive manufacturing face a particularly high bar if they are going to be modified for the battlefield. Products must be ruggedized, fit the warfighter, as well as be hardened and secure. Among the top requirements is to work within the tight confines of already-fielded product and technology platforms. The challenge in additive manufacturing is how to add capability and functionality to an existing device or technology platform without adding too much weight, changing the device’s size, or compromising the device’s native systems.
“One of the key benefits of multi-material 3D printing is that complex parts with different material properties can be created in a single printing process.” – Mitchell Meinhold
Draper recently put this idea to the test by using additive manufacturing to print sensors onto a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hand-held communicator. Draper produced a scanned image of the communicator’s battery pack to find nooks and crannies where the new technology layer could reside, ported the image into a 3D CAD model, processed the CAD model with Draper’s proprietary software, converted the data into instructions for the 3D printer and then printed an ultra-thin, multi-stack layer of electronics.
Additive manufacturing has other benefits. It can reduce the concept-to-prototype fabrication time for a microprocessor from many weeks – and even months – to just a few days.
Conventional additive manufacturing equipment does not have the ability to efficiently print both the mechanical structure and the associated electronics. As a result, engineers must still design and fabricate parts separately and then assemble them into the final system, potentially taking several days to do this. Even that brief period can be a significant impediment when a company is responding to an urgent need from a customer.
One of the key benefits of multi-material 3D printing is that complex parts with different material properties can be created in a single printing process. Such multi-material 3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing that is starting to replace traditional subtractive manufacturing that has long been used to make printed circuit boards, among other technologies.
GDH: Draper was recently awarded a contract by the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center, which is focused on protecting military technologies by way of additive manufacturing. How can additive manufacturing protect military tech?
Mitchell Meinhold: The U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division recently issued six new contracts focused on protecting military technologies by way of additive manufacturing. Draper was awarded one of the contracts. The stated goal is to demonstrate a way to surpass current technology limitations in protection techniques, processes, or systems as well as to demonstrate feasibility for eventual deployment on DoD systems and platforms.
Under this contract, Draper will develop materials, tools, and processes to fabricate circuits and components to augment the Navy’s existing capabilities for detecting reverse engineering and system assault and entry. Our goal is to use additive manufacturing to help safeguard internal systems from intrusion or attack.
Draper is a security-focused, defense-grade engineering services company. Our work on the Navy’s program builds on our legacy in technology protection. We have assisted U.S. government agencies with projects including cybersecurity, technology protection, and miniature cryptography for high stress environments.
“Using additive manufacturing, Draper can quickly fabricate and field heterogeneous, monolithic electromechanical systems in a multitude of different materials, size scales, and form factors.” – Mitchell Meinhold
GDH: What are Draper’s plans on executing upon the contract? What additive manufacturing prototype capabilities is Draper working on that will protect military tech?
Mitchell Meinhold: Draper develops technology for demanding environments, including those encountered by the Navy, which has extremely severe regulations in place for the materials used in ship and system production. Military environments tend to have large temperature swings and high amounts of shock and vibration. Such highly dynamic environments can cause performance and technology protection issues for systems that were built using manufacturing methods developed for less dynamic environments.
A multidisciplinary team at Draper is at work on the contract and developing new techniques in the way additive manufacturing can protect military tech. One approach that will likely come into play is heterogeneous integration, which is the tight integration and assembly of components that meet the tech protection requirements of a military system. Using additive manufacturing, Draper can quickly fabricate and field heterogeneous, monolithic electromechanical systems in a multitude of different materials, size scales, and form factors.
Among various heterogeneous integration techniques, Draper has developed additive approaches to integrating fine wire interconnect, vertical interconnects, and electronic components into complex three dimensional assemblies that can retrofit to existing electronic systems. This capability is key to not only safeguarding the underlying technology, but to keep both the cost and complexity of system designs low – all of which is a benefit to Draper’s customers.