The U.S. military views 3D printing and other forms of advanced manufacturing as a way to reimagine traditional manufacturing approaches that have historically been incredibly slow and costly. It also sees these revolutionary approaches to manufacturing as a way to increase readiness – by making it possible to quickly create what is needed in theater, without having to wait for it to be manufactured at home, and then sent overseas.
This excitement about 3D printing across the Department of Defense (DoD) has resulted in the formation of the REACT Lab by the U.S. Air Force, and the establishment of the Jointless Hull Program, which is attempting to 3D print large metal vehicle parts, including the hulls of tanks.
The military’s ability to 3D print products and parts in austere environments took significant strides recently when the Consortium for Additive Manufacturing Research and Education (CAMRE) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), the Marine Innovation Unit (MIU), and Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39 collaborated for the first successful demonstration of in-flight 3D printing aboard a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.
The GovDesignHub recently had the opportunity to speak with LtCol Michael Radigan with the Marine Innovation Unit (MIU), a reserve unit of the U.S. Marine Corps that leverages the talent and expertise of diverse industry experts who engage with operational forces to help them innovate faster. During our conversation, LtCol Radigan explained how the Marine Corps could benefit from 3D printing while in flight.
GovDesignHub (GDH): Why is it important to have the ability to 3D print while in flight? What benefits of use cases do you see for this capability?
LtCol Michael Radigan: When I originally came up with this concept, I was more concerned with demonstrating what was possible. Then, as I conducted the event and started talking with more people about it, they invented their own concepts of what would be next. That is the purpose – to be the genesis of an idea and allow it to continue to flower and grow.
This project demonstrated an interesting capability, and I think we’re going to see many cool things that will come out of this, specifically with the medical community. In this particular event, we demonstrated the ability to create a medical device while en route to pick up the injured person or deliver the medical device to the person. This is much faster than picking the person up, bringing them back, and then creating the device for them. It allows us to do it all in one step.
GDH: What kinds of challenges do you face when attempting to 3D print in flight? How is it different than 3D printing in a controlled environment?
LtCol Michael Radigan: There’s a bit of a misnomer that 3D printers must be in a clean, stable environment to get good results. And for certain printers, that is true. They need to be in a highly controlled environment with consistent temperature, humidity, and other conditions.
But there are other printers coming online that are designed for that expeditionary environment. That’s why we selected this particular printer, because it was developed with expeditionary environments in mind.
We truly wanted to test the 3D printer’s limits. What can it do? In our initial tests, we were very focused on ensuring a nice, smooth, straight, and level flight with as clean air as possible. When we received an excellent result, I said, “Let’s go ahead and just print while we’re taxiing and taking off, and see how the printer would operate with turbulence.”
Even in these conditions, we received a great result. This test was a good proof of concept of the expeditionary capability we were looking for in 3D printing. It showed us what the future will look like with the upcoming capabilities we may have.
GDH: What technologies and solutions were needed to make 3D printing in flight a reality? Were there any particular tools or solutions that were used in the demonstration that were instrumental in making this possible?
LtCol Michael Radigan: The people. It is all about having the right people in place and people with the authority to make decisions that want to see this demonstration and innovation. You must have competent crews present to help facilitate the demonstration and conduct the risk mitigation necessary to make these things possible.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of scrutiny in aviation to ensure that conditions are very safe. So, we went through all those measures to ensure this demonstration would be valuable and safe for the crew on board.
One of the challenges we had to work through was how to power this device. For this demonstration, we could not use power from the aircraft; there are some safety reasons behind that for an initial test. And so, we had to bring our own power source with us. The ability to source the suitable power supply that would deliver what we needed to operate the machine was a challenge that took a little effort to resolve.
“…we demonstrated the ability to create a medical device while en route to pick up the injured person or deliver the medical device to the person. This is much faster than picking the person up, bringing them back, and then creating the device for them. It allows us to do it all in one step.” – LtCol Michael Radigan
But one of the exciting findings of this challenge is that we realized how low of a power requirement the 3D printer needed. Once this printer is started, it doesn’t take much more power than a large light bulb to continue operating.
This finding sparked our minds. What if we do this at scale? What if we have containerized solutions with many of these printers? It starts to present some unique opportunities. But had we not conducted that exercise or there was a plug on the aircraft, we probably wouldn’t have been thinking the same way.
GDH: The Advanced Manufacturing Operational System (AMOS) was used during this demonstration, and is renowned for its speed, reliability and expeditionary ruggedness when benchmarked to comparable systems. Why is this the case?
LtCol Michael Radigan: It was designed that way. When the inventor – a government employee – designed the AMOS, he benchmarked all the other polymer printers out there by noting what he liked about them and what he didn’t like about them.
He recognized that for his particular project and initiative, the 3D printer needed speed. So, he designed the AMOS to get the 3D printing system to work faster. That goal was inherent in the concept of the AMOS and why it’s so much quicker than any of the other systems out there.
During this demonstration, the cast took about 65 to 70 minutes to print completely. This is a typical transit time for the aircraft, so the AMOS was a great fit for demonstrating printing while in flight. The time may be reduced as we continue to optimize the 3D printing system.