Adopting Additive Manufacturing and its Impact on Land Power
The effectiveness of land power is underpinned by its supply chain. Without an efficient supply chain, Army’s ability to maintain effectiveness in established locations, and when projected forward, is at risk. Therefore, it is imperative that the Army looks to enhance its ability to deal with situations where the supply chain is compromised, either due to geographical dislocation, replacement part shortages, or backlog. The adoption of Additive Manufacturing (AM) as part of the supply chain can mitigate these risks. AM equipment can be located at the point of need to fabricate required components, either as replacement parts or to enable equipment to be limped home. AM could supplement the supply chain. While, traditional supply chain practices would need to remain, AM could be injected when the supply chain falters. AM’s other excellent capability is that it can facilitate innovation by filling capability gaps and improving existing capability. Throughout history, Australian Army members have proven themselves to be innovative thinkers, and AM provides another tool to foster this behaviour. In short, AM can transform land power by creating a more resilient supply chain and by creating the opportunity for bespoke solutions on the ground as required.
AM encompasses a range of technologies that produce components by building parts, a layer at a time, in a range of materials. This includes the more commonly known process of Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) where a thermoplastic is melted and laid, one layer on top of the other, until the part is built. Other more complex processes include Selective Laser Melting (SLM) where metals powders are fused together using laser/s.[i] Each process offers advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, selecting an appropriate process depends on the application. There is also a wide range of machine sizes available within the industry; anywhere from the size of a microwave oven to a machine that requires extensive infrastructure for operation in a temperature-controlled environment.
The variety in AM output has the potential to benefit land power in a multitude of ways. This includes the ability to print parts on the frontline at the point of need where size and infrastructure would be limiting factors, to the production of more complex components using machines that require temperature-controlled environments and significant power.
A simple component such as a selector switch on a radio can render the radio completely inoperable if it goes missing or is damaged. In locations such as a patrol base in Afghanistan, returning radios for repair is not feasible and access to spare parts is limited to what is carried at the time of departure. The loss or malfunction of a simple component results in an otherwise functional radio needing to be swapped for another. Another option now exists. A small 3D printer located at a patrol base could fabricate this component, and others, to keep equipment functioning temporarily, or to repair it to a fully serviceable standard.
The front bracket mount of a helmet is another plastic component that can readily break and have a significant impact on combat effectiveness. Without a bracket, the soldier is unable to mount a range of equipment to their helmet. 3D printing a new bracket can restore full functionality to the member’s helmet.
These are two simple examples of current in-service pieces of equipment that contain plastic componentry. However, the utility of AM is not limited to small plastic components. A unique application for AM is the fabrication of drone frames. The functionality of a drone could vary depending on mission requirements therefore, there is likely to be multiple designs. Transporting quantities of each design is not logistically feasible. AM offers the flexibility to fabricate frames, as required, with the additional benefit of being able to modify designs prior to 3D printing.
AM Use in Industry
AM is already used within the Defence industry. In particular, the US military. [ii] The US military has invested significantly in exploring AM to “reduce maintenance cycle times, supply chain backlogs, and place manufacturing capabilities at or near the point of need.” [iii] In doing so, the US is paving the way for the adoption of AM within the defence environment, while also addressing issues such as the secure transmission and access of 3D printing data into the battlefield.[iv] A recent announcement from President Biden[v] has shown the increasing level of trust in AM technology for the fabrication of spare parts in support of sovereign manufacturing.[vi] This development promises to transform the US manufacturing landscape, decreasing reliance on other countries for certain products. With the Australian Army, utilisation of AM has been very limited, isolated to initiatives such as Makerspace [vii] and Spee3D trial [viii] which does not capitalise on the full potential of AM.
Adopting AM to Transform Land Power
AM is a complex topic with a wide range of materials and processes. Significant analysis is required to determine its application within the Australian Army and how it can best support our capabilities.
It is essential to develop policy to identify circumstances where AM can be used so that clear guidelines exist, setting the conditions under which a component can be fabricated by AM. This policy would detail such information as whether an item is classified as low risk, what process would be used to fabricate the item, and what material it would be made out of. An example could be a radio selector switch. In this instance, the switch is a low risk item, FFF is a suitable fabrication process, and the material black PETG matches environmental and physical conditions. On this basis, approval could be granted for a selector switch to be fabricated wherever a suitable FFF 3D printer is located. By contrast, if a component were to be classified as high risk, an engineering appreciation process would need to be followed before fabrication would be approved.
Different lines of support may offer different levels of AM support. Front line support could be in the form of a small portable FFF printer to print parts so that mission critical equipment could be ‘limped’ home. Further back within lines of support, additional 3D printing capability could be offered. With suitable infrastructure, metal additively manufactured components could be fabricated for the repair of vehicles or weapon systems.
Any policy dealing with AM in the Australian Army needs to identify opportunities within the procurement process where AM can be utilised to fabricate spare parts for incoming new systems. OEM’s need to relinquish control as the sole providers of low-risk spare parts in circumstances where AM provides a highly suitable alternative for fabrication. Instead of holding control over the provision of such parts, OEM’s should instead be directed to supply the appropriate AM process and material for any given spare part. Alternatively, analysis within Defence could identify these specifications with a process established for seeking OEM approval to proceed with fabrication. In either case, consideration needs to be given to the lifespan of the part; is it a replacement destined for long-term use, or does it enable a critical function to operate while waiting for a replacement part through the supply chain?
AM isn’t restricted to repair parts however. It can also be employed to solve unique problems encountered by soldiers. These can range from simple day-to-day tasks through to the creation of new capability. With their first-hand field exposure, soldiers are the most effective method of identifying gaps in capability and issues with in-service equipment. Providing a method to fill these gaps or improve in-service equipment keeps Army evolving and supports immediate improvements on the ground.
AM has the potential to transform land power. It enables continuity in Army business with minimal disruption from a supply chain that may be geographically dislocated, suffering parts’ shortage, or subject to backlog. In such circumstances, AM can be used to provide solutions at the point of need in order to limp home components, or to supplement the supply chain. As AM has a wide range of equipment sizes, infrastructure requirements and application suitability, it can be used to fabricate a range of components in diverse operational environments. The technology has already seen implementation within the US Marines where AM has been identified as an essential technology to mitigate supply issues. AM also has the capacity to solve problems outside of the supply chain by providing solutions to deficiencies in in-service equipment or by generating new capability in response to the needs identified by experienced and innovative members of the Australian Army. For AM to be properly integrated into the Australian Army, policy is needed to provide the necessary guidance for fabricating components using the technology, outlining ‘what’ and ‘how’ components can be made. With the appropriate decision making frameworks in place, AM has the potential to have a significant impact on land power by bringing fabrication capabilities and innovation closer to the point of need, softening the blow of supply chain problems, and improving capability.
This article is an entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.
[i] O. Diegel, A. Nordin and D. Motte, A Practical Guide to Design for Additive Manufacturing. 2019.
[ii] "Department of Defense Additive Manufacturing Strategy", Cto.mil, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.cto.mil/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/dod-additive-manufacturing-strategy.pdf. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022]. And: "ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING POLICY", 2020. Available at: https://www.marines.mil/News/Publications/MCPEL/Electronic-Library-Display/Article/2147107/mco- 47004/. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[iii] K. Sertoglu, "US Air Force 3D prints spare parts to solve maintenance issues - 3D Printing Industry", 3D Printing Industry, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/us-air-force-3d- prints-spare-parts-to-solve-maintenance-issues-208906/. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[iv] G. Fuentes, "Marine Corps Wants a Digital Blueprint Locker for Access to 3D Printing Plans Anywhere - USNI News", USNI News, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://news.usni.org/2021/07/05/marine-corps- wants-a-digital-blueprint-locker-for-access-to-3d-printing-plans-anywhere. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022]. K. Sertoglu, "DEVCOM's Project Prime explores secure remote 3D printing for defense with DEFEND3D - 3D Printing Industry", 3D Printing Industry, 2022. Available: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/devcoms-project-prime-explores-secu…- defense-with-defend3d-208984/. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[v] "FACT SHEET: Biden Administration Celebrates Launch of AM Forward and Calls on Congress to Pass Bipartisan Innovation Act | The White House", The White House, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/06/fact-sheet-biden- administration-celebrates-launch-of-am-forward-and-calls-on-congress-to-pass-bipartisan-innovation- act/. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[vi] "ExOne Developing Portable 3D Printing Factory in Shipping Container for Department of Defense", Exone.com, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.exone.com/en-US/Resources/news/ExOne- Developing-Portable-3D-Printing-Factory-in-S. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[vii] "MakerSpace Program", 2021. [Online]. Available: https://researchcentre.army.gov.au/makerspace. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
[viii] "Australian Army Proves Metal 3D Printing can Strengthen Sovereign Capability", 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.spee3d.com/australian-army-proves-metal-3d-printing-can-strengthen- sovereign-capability/. [Accessed: 30- May- 2022].
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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