In our last article on the GoveDesignHub (GDH), we sat down with Dr. Samantha McBirney, an engineer at the RAND Corporation, to discuss the benefits the Department of Defense (DoD) would receive from embracing additive manufacturing. Ultimately, we concluded that this revolutionary new approach to manufacturing helps mitigate supply chain issues, creates military equipment components efficiently, reduces costs, increases readiness, and decreases turnaround time.
However, while that list of benefits is impressive, it hasn’t helped to accelerate the adoption of advanced manufacturing across the military. Why has the DoD had difficulty adopting these innovative solutions? What challenges keep them from embracing additive manufacturing for everything from replacement parts to the fabrication of new weapons systems?
In the second half of our two-part discussion with Samantha, we discuss the challenges the DoD faces when embracing generative design and additive manufacturing. We also explore steps the DoD and private industry can take to overcome the hurdles and make these new technologies more readily available for the warfighter.
GDH: In a recent article you penned for National Defense, you say that the DoD hasn’t “fully leveraged additive manufacturing (AM).” With so many potential benefits to additive manufacturing, why do you think it’s not being fully adopted? What is slowing the adoption of additive manufacturing in the DoD?
Dr. Sam McBirney: There are quite a few reasons the DoD has yet to fully leverage AM, most of which stem from human as opposed to technical factors. As Mr. Phil Burton, co-author of the article in National Defense, loves to say, “Printing is the easy part. It’s everything to the left and everything to the right that is hard.” Our article touches on all of these reasons that adoption of AM in the DoD is a bit slow for our taste, but I’d like to focus on Intellectual property (IP) rights and qualification processes here.
IP rights can broadly impede the use of AM; however, the perspective shifts significantly depending on the service branch. In the Air Force, subject matter experts, including both engineers and attorneys alike, clearly state that IP is a non-issue because the Air Force has the right to maintain and sustain. So, if a part is being additively manufactured for maintenance or sustainment purposes and is kept in-house, then IP is not a concern. Also, if the part’s manufacturing process, material, or design fundamentally changes—at least one of which is the case when switching from traditional to additive manufacturing—then IP is no longer a consideration.
“The qualification processes are lengthy. It can take a full year for a non-mission-critical part to be qualified for use due to unnecessarily rigid, yet entirely subjective, requirements.” – Dr. Samantha McBirney
A similar perspective has been noted across the Marine Corps. However, within the Army, IP considerations severely constrain the organic industrial base’s ability to manufacture permanent replacement parts via AM. Until everyone is on the same, well-informed page regarding IP rights, this will continue to be one of the most formidable barriers to further adoption of the technology, particularly within the Army.
Additionally, the qualification processes are lengthy. It can take a full year for a non-mission-critical part to be qualified for use due to unnecessarily rigid, yet entirely subjective, requirements. Qualification time could be significantly shortened if universal standards were in place. However, the DoD lacks such standards for additive manufacturing—a challenge that is not unique to any branch within the military or the military itself, but one I’ve found to be widespread within the commercial world.
GDH: Why are the qualification processes so long? Do you have any examples?
Dr. Sam McBirney: One of many reasons the qualification process tends to be so unwieldy within the DoD is that there is no overarching guidance to guide the process. Furthermore, those tasked with deciding to use an additively manufactured part often lack a fundamental understanding of the technology and, as mentioned in our other article, generally tend to be risk-averse (and for good reason). There is little-to-no aspect of the qualification process within the broader DoD that is data-driven, which is in stark contrast to industry.
Even when ample modeling and simulation efforts are undertaken to prove the validity of an additively manufactured part, folks still hesitate to use it. Instead, they will opt to continue using the traditional part or put the AM part through an unnecessarily complicated qualification process. This tedious process often defeats the purpose of 3D printing the component in the first place.
“Because this is a multi-pronged issue, we need to have a multi-pronged solution.” – Dr. Samantha McBirney
My favorite example comes from the Army. The first AM part to be qualified for a combat vehicle in the Army was delivered in March of 2021—a display arm for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This part was designed to hold up a computer monitor—a critical element, but not necessarily one that puts anyone’s safety at risk should it break.
While it took only 45 days to go from receiving the request to having a 3D-printed part in hand, it took 296 days to qualify because the qualification called for testing the component for 500 Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability (RAM) miles. It took time to both find a vehicle and subsequently drive 500 miles to test a display arm.
Even though the component was created from a more robust material and all tests conducted proved the part was a more-than-efficient substitute, the Configuration Manager tasked with making the final decision regarding the use of this part called for a 500-mile test as part of the qualification process. The component was initially 3D printed to shorten a nine-month lead time. However, because it took nearly ten months to qualify the part, the supply chain was given ample time to correct itself and deliver the OEM part before the AM part was qualified, ultimately defeating the purpose of 3D printing the part for that specific circumstance in the first place.
GDH: What do you feel needs to be done within the DoD to increase the adoption and advancement of additive manufacturing? Is this an issue of investment and funding, a lack of skills that need to be overcome, or a need for a culture change?
Dr. Sam McBirney: All of the above. Because this is a multi-pronged issue, we need to have a multi-pronged solution.
Funding will always be difficult within the DoD, thanks to countless competing priorities. Even if you focus on the emerging technology domain alone, there are so many potential technologies one could focus on, and they all require significant levels of funding. But funding remains a huge barrier to further advancement of the technology; if AM is only funded at a small fraction of the requirement, progress will be slow.
“A culture change is paramount. The culture in the Army and the Air Force, in particular, can be characterized as risk-averse, and for good reason.” – Dr. Samantha McBirney
Workforce development is another issue we should focus on when it comes to this issue. I don’t believe this is a matter of the DoD’s workforce not being capable or not having the potential to 3D-print OEM-equivalent parts or to design for AM. In fact, I know the DoD’s workforce is more than capable of accomplishing this, as I’ve seen it firsthand. Instead, I think this is a matter of the workload being astoundingly low in this space within the DoD. Without a [more] consistent workload, maintaining this skillset will be difficult.
Lastly, a culture change is paramount. The culture in the Army and the Air Force, in particular, can be characterized as risk-averse, and for good reason. If a part malfunctions, the consequences could be deadly. But progress in this space depends on a culture change, which includes a fundamental shift in risk perception. The fear of using AM is understandable, yet unsubstantiated.
Additive manufacturing parts are proving, time and time again, to be functionally identical to traditionally manufactured parts. Still, until education and awareness increase, it will remain difficult to convince those most dedicated to the safety of their weapons systems to take the proverbial jump and use additive manufacturing.
GDH: What can and should private industry partners be doing to help advance additive manufacturing adoption in the military and government? How can private industry partners aid the DoD in overcoming its hang-ups and embracing additive manufacturing?
Dr. Sam McBirney: There’s quite a bit that industry partners can be, and are, doing in this space. For example, one program that has gained tremendous visibility is Pacer Edge—a collaboration between the U.S. Air Force, GE Additive, and GE Aviation. This collaboration originated from the need to relieve supply chain issues related to spare parts for U.S. Air Force engines and is loosely based on a spiral development model consisting of three phases, with complexity and scale increasing with each phase.
The primary goals of this endeavor are to map out the airworthiness process for 3D-printing components and create a situation where the Air Force can print their own components entirely in-house. The Air Force is essentially licensing know-how and technical expertise from GE in an attempt to duplicate the highly controlled, repeatable process GE has developed and honed over the years. This program has been wildly successful—so successful that it’s now being expanded across the other services. This kind of partnership is something I consider to be critical to further adoption of AM in the DoD, given how much further down the road the private sector is.
Additionally, OEMs will need to come to the table and provide the DoD with technical data packages (or TDPs). The intent of doing so, as far as the DoD is concerned, is to eliminate the burden of having to reverse engineer parts. Right now, if someone in the DoD wants to 3D-print a component and the DoD user does not have the TDP from the OEM, then their first job is to reverse-engineer said component, which is a multi-step process.
“The DoD is not looking to replace the supply chain but merely to augment it in situations where the supply chain is failing them.” – Dr. Samantha McBirney
First, there are concerns surrounding intellectual property and whether the DoD user is allowed to reverse-engineer and manufacture the part on their own. Even once reverse engineering is deemed permissible, it takes time, expertise, money, equipment, etc. All of this would be made significantly easier if the TDP were provided to the DoD, either upfront for future acquisitions or when requested for legacy systems already in the field. Then, the DoD user could start with the TDP and just print the part from there, significantly reducing downtime of the platform and increasing readiness.
While, on the one hand, it sounds like this would be a disadvantage for private industry because they would be fostering the DoD’s ability to manufacture replacement parts for weapons systems originally sourced elsewhere, we need to keep in mind that the amount of business lost is minimal. The number of replacement parts the DoD wants to print is low since additive manufacturing is primarily used for low-quantity volumes. The DoD is not looking to replace the supply chain but merely to augment it in situations where the supply chain is failing them.
Primary use cases within the DoD will likely remain focused on addressing diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages, long manufacturing lead times, supply shortages, and parts obsolescence. This focus means that business isn’t lost as long as the supply chain functions the way it should and needs to be for the end user. It’s primarily only when the supply chain needs extra support that the DoD would like to be able to step in and 3D-print parts.
Featured image: Cpl. Johnathan Ritter, an automotive maintenance technician with 2nd Maintenance Battalion, observes the printing of a prototype pulley system during a 3D printing course on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Kirkiewicz.) The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.