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Additive Manufacturing - Taking the 'iron mountain' out of military logistics

Additive Manufacturing - Taking the 'iron mountain' out of military logistics

3D printing technology could possibly alleviate some of the issues with stockpiling supplies - Matthew Ng writes.

As the Australian Army procures increasingly complex capabilities in developing a 21st century land force, the ability to maintain Army’s platforms and ensure operational readiness will pose new and unprecedented challenges for Army’s logisticians.

Maintenance of combat platforms can be complex and highly unpredictable in peacetime, especially with fiscal pressures, not to mention those operational scenarios where the logistical supply chain can be vulnerable and expensive. For example, it is estimated that the net additional costs (e.g. transportation, repair and maintenance, fuel, consumables) of Operation SLIPPER during the 2011/12 financial year cost Defence approximately $1.2 billion. Therefore, the consequences of inadequate logistics support are well known: long lead times, high transportation costs and considerable inventory wastage, leading to lower operational readiness. Furthermore, although overall sustainment funding has nevertheless been below budgetary estimates in the 2016-17 financial year, this could drastically increase in future high-intensity operational scenarios.

Additive manufacturing (AM) therefore has enormous potential in assisting Army in eliminating much of the ‘iron mountain’ synonymous with 20th century logistics. Imagine if soldiers in a combat zone without an existing parts inventory could manufacture their own spare parts in near real-time. Imagine if Army was able to design, prototype and print a customised unmanned aerial system (UAS) for a specific mission within 24 hours. This idea has, in fact, taken flight last year, and some of the most tangible experiences with AM have come from the US Army trialling this concept in collaboration with the US Marine Corps (USMC). Therefore from a logistical perspective, an ability to install a deployable AM module in an operational environment could have enduring lifecycle cost savings in the long term, especially with the rapidly advancing nature of AM.

AM has the potential to effectively eliminate the usual wait for a support unit to deliver replacement parts. The size and diversity of parts that can be produced both in-barracks and in-theatre are far-reaching, from consumable items like brackets and screws to larger, more complex systems such as a prototype submersible hull. For example, a USMC unit printed a functional Humvee door in 45 minutes during a field trial in the Arizona desert. This proof-of-concept would enable a variety of benefits such as the ability to cut inventory holding and transportation costs in-theatre and give units the ability to manufacture their own tools and equipment on-site and on demand.

From a capability lifecycle perspective, AM also has great potential. In terms of research and development, Australian industry can benefit by investing in AM as it is more environmentally friendly and can provide a competitive advantage to both small and large organisations. One such project being developed by Melbourne-based Amaero Engineering in partnership with Monash University is the world’s first 3D printed jet engine, which has since caught the interest of companies like Raytheon, Airbus and Boeing. 3D printing can provide Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) with the flexibility and capability to conduct rapid prototyping in design and development, thereby providing the potential for significant competitive advantage. On the other end of the sustainment lifecycle, it could also provide Army with the ability to scan, reverse engineer and print components which cannot be procured due to, say OEMs no longer producing them or some other supply hindrance… and potentially at reduced costs. This is true at least in the commercial world, with 22% of respondents in a survey of 38 German companies revealing that at least 10% of their spare parts are obsolete.

3d printer

Although the benefits of AM are clear, there are other issues to consider and policies to be written, given the nature of this rapidly emerging technology. Factors that have to be taken into account when drafting policy or official guidance could include the intellectual property (IP) rights of OEMs, the quality of 3D printed components and how they would be technically certified and who in the chain of command would approve printed parts. However, the USMC seem to address this in providing their official interim guidance on using AM, as well as how it can relate to air, sea and land platforms. The US Army has created a similar roadmap, based on three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1 will use AM to repair/replace existing parts.
  • Phase 2 will reduce multi-part assembly from a series of parts to one part.
  • Phase 3 will use AM to create new parts that do not already exist.

These examples could perhaps be used as a foundation or benchmark for an official policy or doctrine to be developed by Defence for the Australian context. Moreover, increased collaboration with Defence Science and Technology Group, industry and academia is recommended in order for both Army and Defence to gain a deeper understanding of the benefits and potential challenges of AM. Overall, the benefits and potential of AM, especially for military logistics, far outweigh the challenges of implementing this technology throughout Army and indeed across the Australian Defence Force. It may also cause us to drastically change our methodology and thinking in how we approach logistics in Defence.

(Images - Top - A US Marine creates a part with a 3D printer. Bottom - A deployable fabrication shelter in which 3D printed parts are made) (US DoD - Public Domain)

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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