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Advance Article: Additive Manufacturing (Australian Army Journal Vol XVI, No 1)

24 March 2020
Additive Manufacturing
Emerging Technologies
Australian Army Journal
Circular image depicting 3D printing

The below article was written to address the topic of ‘Accelerated Warfare’ and will be published in the forthcoming Australian Army Journal Volume XVI, Number 1 later this year. As such, it is subject to editorial changes.

This article on additive manufacturing—authored by Major Matt Wood—discusses some of its strengths, as well as some of the weaknesses of 3D printing and advanced manufacturing techniques. It assists in pulling the future towards us, and enabling Future Ready in Accelerated Warfare.

The recently established Robotic and Autonomous Systems Implementation Office (RICO) is responsible for pursuing Army’s interests in Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) / Artificial Intelligence (AI) and disruptive technologies (such as additive manufacturing) and ethically leverage them to gain asymmetric advantage in the future operating environment.

The RICO will be releasing additional blog posts and articles in 2020, with topics including Quantum Technologies and Robotic Processing Automation.


Reintroducing Manufacturing into Army’s Supply Chain

Introduction

The topic of additive manufacturing (AM), colloquially referred to as 3D printing, has circulated for some time in force design and capability development circles. The essential premise supporting AM is an expectation that it gives an organisation a degree of supply autonomy, or another way of putting it is that it gives consumers control over their own needs. The other common argument for AM is based on a perceived need for rapid prototyping as an enabler to local innovation; however, the need to do this is not well defined.

AM technology has developed significantly since its inception in the 1980s. As the balance of cost verses benefit continues to shift in its favour, its use has increasingly permeated the manufacturing industry. It continually offers novel solutions to manufacturing that have previously not been conceivable. It has opened possibilities with new materials and construction methods, and takes advantage of idealistic engineering structures that are only made possible by an additive process.

In essence, it is an excellent and very advantageous technology. However, it is naive to view it as a panacea that is independently capable of solving gaps in the supply chain or improving capability readiness in its current form. By itself, it does little to close the gap between innovative consumer and manufacturer, instead adding further complexity to what manufacturing is and can do. Nevertheless, in the context of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, we see the emergence of an industrial ecosystem where cyber-physical systems and hyper-connectivity spawn new paradigms for the consumer-manufacturer relationship. Advanced manufacturing is playing an underpinning role in this new industrial ecosystem, but only as a collective ecosystem is it revolutionary. So ultimately, the question is less about AM in isolation and more about whether Defence wants to introduce a manufacturing ecosystem into its organisation, part of which may cross traditional organisational boundaries.

Framing the problem

Land forces routinely find themselves operating in geographically and commercially isolated environments which are not easy or convenient to support logistically. Furthermore, the insatiable requirement for mechanised, high technology capabilities, which are expected to operate and evolve in all environments, will drive a dependence on a vast and new type of supply chain.

The notion of being able to spontaneously print a mechanical part, be it for a weapon or machine, is very appealing. In reality, the ability to locally manufacture a part for such equipment is more complex than commonly thought for a number of reasons. 

First, organisational needs and requirements have evidently not led any Land force design process to conclude that a general manufacturing capability is required in Army; therefore, the organisation has no technical policy, intellectual property (IP) licences, facilities or tooling to enable manufacturing. Indeed, like many contemporary military organisations, Army has increasingly moved away from Government sourced manufacturing in favour of Defence industry to deliver capabilities and technical services.[1]

Second, maintenance is very different to manufacturing; therefore whist some Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) trade qualifications may seem on the surface to be commensurate with manufacturing qualifications, in their current form they are not. There is a clear distinction in qualification, subject expertise and professional experience between practitioners of Army’s light and medium grade repair effect and civil-industrial prototyping, fabrication and production.

Third, AM machine types are numerous yet only represent a small portion of a manufacturing capability. Different materials, tolerances and specifications require different types of processes, production and machinery. This is particularly pertinent with parts that are comprised of multiple materials, require specified properties of hardness or tensile strength, or have precision tolerances.

Fourth, for some complex parts, using AM as the manufacturing solution could actually take longer than acquiring the part through the Defence supply chain or commercial sources.

Fifth, the performance edge inherent to some capabilities is derived from advanced material science that is bound by proprietary laws. Even if IP could be purchased, the laboratories, engineers, machines and instruments necessary for production are not necessarily commercially available and are often bespoke, one-off capabilities veiled by commercial confidentiality.

Finally, while viewing the problem of parts supply through a military operational lens, it is natural to value supply velocity and reliability over all else. However, efficiency and economic limitations will inevitably constrain operations as no budget is limitless.

None of the reasons above rule out manufacturing as a viable component of a Land or Joint Force’s future supply chain. Indeed, there are many compelling benefits to introducing a manufacturing capability; however, it has to be by design and around organisational needs and requirements rather than notions that wish away supply problems or an impulse for rapid prototyping.

The essential premise for the AM argument is to give Army a degree of supply autonomy. Whist the National Support Base (NSB) model is essential as a strategic source of materiel, it is inevitably bound by commercial industrial capacity, and has limitations in reaching into operational theatres with the required fidelity and velocity. A degree of supply autonomy could reduce stockpiling, lessen supply uncertainty, reduce the impact of supply disruption on operational tempo, and build organisational trust in the supply system.

As a natural attribute of military procurement, when a new capability is acquired it is done so as a complete system incorporating each fundamental input to capability (FIC) – including sustainment. In some cases delivery of support may be bound by commercial obligations set by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM); in other cases contracts with third party organisations may be established to deliver materiel support. The introduction of a component manufacturing capability into the supply chain could essentially circumvent these contracts or OEM set obligations. This is acceptable, provided the contracted parties are willing to accommodate. This may require IP to be included as an integral component of acquisition, which will fundamentally change the through-life-support cost model and change Defence’s relationships with OEMs.  Access to such IP could come through similar models to iTunes® where online music is accessed on a ‘pay to play’ basis.

AM is a viable method of manufacturing some materiel; indeed many of the OEM and third party sourced components that support Defence materiel are already manufactured using AM techniques. However, as alluded to earlier, the important question is less about AM in isolation and more about whether Army wants manufacturing introduced into the supply chain. This leads to three more questions: what organisational needs and requirements underpin a manufacturing capability; what does a manufacturing capability actually look like; and where in the supply chain would a manufacturing capability be most suitable or beneficial?

Needs and Requirements

Business needs and requirements must be defined before potential solutions can be considered. This is particularly pertinent when emerging technologies offer solutions without defined problems. To some extent, that is true of AM; however, there are compelling organisational needs that could be addressed with some form of internally controlled manufacturing capability. Army’s Accelerated Warfare framework promotes the notion of constant change, technological disruption, and the contest of ideas that should ultimately encourage us to innovate broadly as an organisation.[2] The opportunities presented by advanced manufacturing are one of many areas where we can innovate. At present, there is an inherent lack of organisational agility to design, prototype and test innovative proposals within Army’s formations, in training or on operations. There are also some very real constraints that currently exist in the supply chain, specifically to do with timely access to repair parts that could be mitigated by a manufacturing capability. On this premise, the organisational needs are:

  • Access to a wide variety of repair part (Class 9) components in the shortest feasible time at the point of need.
  • Greater resilience to supply disruption (reduced dependence).
  • Reduced supply chain footprint in order to lessen vulnerability to exploitation and increase agility.
  • Ability to support local innovation through controlled modification or manufacturing of materiel, with real-time user input, in the shortest feasible time for delivery to the point of need.

The system requirements for a capability that is able to support the supply chain differ slightly from a capability designed to support local innovation. The system requirements of the former are deduced from the organisational needs into qualities and attributes the system must have, and include:

  • The system must be capable of manufacturing components made from ferrous and non-ferrous metals, titanium, plastics, and composites including carbon fibre, nylons and Kevlar® like materials. The system must manufacture all pre-determined Class 9 components deemed as feasible and necessary for mandated operational viability periods (OVP). This includes electronic circuit boards, vehicle, weapon, and specialist equipment components.
  • As an emergent capability, the system as a whole must complete the entire manufacturing process, from raw material to finished component.[3] This is to include heat treatment, finishing, testing and any specialist assembly that is by nature part of the manufacturing process.
  • IP must be integrally accessible for use by computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacture (CAM) systems.
  • The system must operate from infrastructure that is transportable by in-service systems. This needs integral climate and environmental control, noxious waste extraction systems, and electrical power management systems that are interoperable with in-service power generation and Uninterrupted Power Systems (UPS).
  • The system must be self-sufficient less consumables, raw materials and servicing requirements. Consumables and raw materials must be readily available and must not be dangerous, noxious or difficult to handle (reasonable PPE accepted).
  • The system must be interoperable with existing maintenance, logistics and IT systems.
  • The system must conform to Australian Standards and relevant international engineering standards. 

Validation of the requirements will be difficult but could feasibly commence with analysis of what Class 9 components are commonly demanded, what impact they have on operational viability, and then determining if the components can be locally manufactured within organisational constraints. By establishing a baseline of Class 9 components, which if readily made available would be beneficial to operational viability, then a manufacturing system could be designed around these requirements. This implies a study of the Defence inventory to assess what components are suitable for local manufacture, or even what components can be improved by advanced manufacturing techniques.[4]  

By default, a system that is capable of manufacturing Class 9 components will be more than adequate to support innovation demands, provided a suitable ‘innovation conduit’ is established to support a consumer-manufacturer relationship. The type of consumer-manufacturer relationship required to enable this may necessitate a new manufacturing paradigm that enables concept-development, design, engineering, test and evaluation, and technical feedback at a local or non-physical level, perhaps through a virtual network of specialists.[5]

Composition of a Manufacturing Capability

The elementary manufacturing capabilities required to satisfy the system requirements detailed above will include the following:

  • Knowledge. Understanding and articulation of what can and should be manufactured to streamline the supply chain is essential. This also incorporates the necessary technical frameworks, technical publications and IP to deliver materiel at the appropriate standard.
  • Facilities. This includes deployable workshop systems that are capable of operating at designated points in the supply chain. These may be scalable – ranging from containerised systems to deployable infrastructure for strategic nodes. At all levels, less for the most rudimentary machines, these facilities are required to provide climate and environmental control, and facilitate essential inputs such as electrical power. For instance, a basic polymer printing machine, which may be used for low risk prototyping, will have significantly less constraints than some of the more complex machines such as atomic diffusion metal printers; and therefore, will come at a lower cost and place fewer demands on organisational infrastructure.
  • Machines. AM machines operate in conjunction with other manufacturing machines such as heat treatment, finishing and fabrication machinery. Only as an emergent system of systems do they deliver a manufacturing capability, and so are less beneficial if employed independently. They also intrinsically rely on machines that manage raw materials, generate high powered lasers, extract noxious waste, wash parts for subsequent processing and fuse metals using sintering furnaces. Within the AM segment, machines of particular utility to the supply chain include electrical circuit board printers, fibre composite printers, polymer printers (laser sintering and extrusion), and metal printers (atomic diffusion and metal powder laser fusing printers).[6] Each type of machine offers unique manufacturing capabilities and can achieve varying material composition, tolerance, technique and form requirements. Basic desktop polymer printers are currently not capable of producing precision components as would be suitable for automotive or weapon component applications. Conversely, precision metal printers are not capable of operating independently of appropriate support systems and facilities. In this respect, there is a large range of capability between systems, with commensurate variation in cost and complexity of employment.
  • Tooling. All manufacturing capabilities, including AM, rely on specialist tooling to measure, handle, classify, finish and package components. Specific manufacturing tooling has almost nothing in common with maintenance tooling and cannot be assumed as already in service.
  • Information Technology (IT). This includes all necessary hardware and software, such as CAD and CAM software to enable design through to manufacture. It also includes appropriate IT to communicate with the supply system and manage IP and technical publications. For applications where local innovation is required, a virtual network that can support concept-development, design, engineering, test and evaluation, and technical feedback may also be required.
  • Employment Category. The reintroduction of manufacturing necessitates appropriate technical qualifications for tradesmen to ensure compliance with various engineering standards. The framework for compliance already exists under the Defence Technical Regulatory Framework (TRF); however, if this capability was to be introduced into Army (as opposed to a NSB organisation), a new Employment Category within RAEME may be required. The current RAEME Metalsmith has some basic fabrication qualifications; however, these qualifications are repair and maintenance centric and are inadequate for manufacturing, machining and fabrication at this level. Furthermore, the level of professional expertise required for prototyping, fabrication and production may not be conducive to a ‘soldier first, tradesman second’ model.

The sort of AM capability described above could feasibly operate from deployable infrastructure. In order to meaningfully support the operational supply chain with the variety of parts and components likely to be demanded, most if not all machines and tooling referred to above would be required.  An industry scan of AM systems currently available suggests that the component size that can be manufactured using this technology is less than 400 x 400 x 300 mm with the exception of some bespoke heavy production systems.[7]

Should a limited capability be preferred, that is one dedicated to a limited spectrum of parts, this may be achieved with a smaller maintenance footprint, possibly based from ISO container sized maintenance shelters.[8] However, its ability to genuinely address supply chain disruption or support isolated theatres is diminished substantially and its cost benefit nexus becomes more tenuous.

Where to Establish a Manufacturing Capability

Postulating the existence of a manufacturing capability at different levels may shed light on where and how an end user would be best supported, and help to expose the risks, inefficiencies or burdens such a capability may impose on an end user organisation. The organisational needs and requirements are also naturally derived from different levels of the organisation, and therefore will inform where such a capability could potentially sit. Whilst the existing logistics echelon hierarchy has been used, it is done so only as a point of reference, and should not constrain future supply and distribution models. This is particularly pertinent for any future manufacturing ecosystem that may cross several organisational boundaries.

Integral logistic support. At the unit A Echelon level, there are unique organisational, mission, operational and materiel characteristics that must be considered. These will either be conducive, or not, to establishing and operating such a capability. By design the organisational structure of an A Echelon, be it within a Combat Brigade or Enabling Brigade, has very limited maintenance support capability other than recovery, fault diagnosis, and light repair. This is all bound within a notice-to-move (NTM) that is usually short and not permissive of stationary capabilities such as field workshops. The A Echelon also has very limited heavy transport or deployable infrastructure and seeks to remain highly mobile and responsive to F Echelon demands. The A Echelon seeks to extend the OVP of an F Echelon to up to seven days. Given the echelon’s mission, OVP and NTM parameters, it is almost certain that the value of physically owning a manufacturing capability at this level would be outweighed by cost, complexity of ownership and its inherent logistical burden. This is all irrespective to the threat that this echelon may be exposed to. Within the broader manufacturing ecosystem concept, this level of the organisation will benefit from access to a virtual network of specialists to facilitate any supply or prototyping demands.

Close logistic support. Within a formation’s logistics organisations, the structure, mission and materiel capabilities are different from the A Echelon. The mission remains to support the parent formation, however by providing close rather than integral support. The formation logistics organisation seeks to extend the OVP of the supported formation up to 21 days.[9] Correlating with this level of support are heavier capabilities and greater technical capacity, including the ability to conduct medium grade repairs. This infers reduced agility and a longer NTM. However, the organisation retains its intrinsic function within the formation and must remain agile and responsive to all manner of constraints associated with combat operations. Therefore, if a manufacturing capability could remain on wheels, with pre-set IP and electronic manufacturing templates, it may provide some capability increase, however the cost and complexity of ownership remains problematic. In this context, the scope of manufacturing would be limited to consumable and simple high use components, or perhaps low risk prototyping in support of formation innovation efforts. However, the true value of a manufacturing capability at this level is difficult to understand without knowledge of inventory and demand trends, and will depend on an IT system that can enable concept-development, design, engineering, test and evaluation, and technical feedback. This system would have to operate in such a fashion as to not impinge on unit tactical requirements or need specialist technical personnel to be physically present in the unit.

General logistic support. The force logistics organisation is logically best placed to facilitate a manufacturing capability for a Joint force. This is largely because of its role as the primary logistics node at a Theatre Gateway, and because of its organisational disposition, specifically capabilities, infrastructure and organisational stability. A Theatre Gateway is, by design, located in such a place as to best support forward force elements while still having access to strategic logistic sources. Therefore, it is also an appropriate location to produce and expedite distribution of critical Class 9 supplies and be reactive to innovation demands. Hypothetically, this manufacturing effect could be delivered by a deployable Joint logistics element where appropriate capabilities, facilities and technical staff would exist.

The logistics and maintenance capabilities of the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force tend to be more platform centric than Army and contain some fabrication, if not manufacturing, capabilities. Army currently does not have a general maintenance or manufacturing capability, and although Army maintenance organisations do have scope for limited local fabrication, it is far from a manufacturing capability that can augment the supply chain.

Impact on Supply Chain

The modern military supply chain is a complex ecosystem enabled by numerous organisations. It draws resources from global markets, foreign military sales, commercial-military primes, opportune regional sources and its own NSB. With this comes both strength and weakness; strength through mutual support and multi-source contracting,[10] but vulnerability through prevailing global market trends, commercial interests, foreign military sales restrictions and other strategic pressures such as strategic lift capacity[11]. While many of these vulnerabilities may not be mitigated through manufacturing, some shortfalls borne from foreign military sales restrictions, strategic supply interdiction, high demand or loss of commercial sources can be mitigated. This would be particularly pertinent for weapons, munitions and Class 9 components. Another, possibly serendipitous, consequence of operating a sovereign manufacturing capability would be the widened opportunities or flow-on benefits for Australian Defence industry, particularly if a royalty based system was established.

At the operational level, the introduction of a manufacturing capability is unlikely to impact supply chain volumetrics significantly, at least in the initial phases of a deployment. Savings made in reduced stock-piling of parts will likely be off-set by the volume of raw material, machinery, infrastructure, and technical support systems that intrinsically make up the manufacturing capability. Hypothetically, if a manufacturing capability was to be set up at a theatre gateway, there will be a volume reduction in strategic movement of Class 9 components and a reduced dependence on foreign military or third party supply arrangements; therefore, greater resilience to supply disruption will be achieved. It is feasible that supply chain responsiveness to some operational demands would be improved substantially; however, the most effective and balanced solution may be a hybrid warehousing and manufacturing capability.

Conclusion

There remains a number of questions that must be understood before Army should consider a manufacturing capability that is able to augment the supply chain. Firstly, it must understand what items in the inventory, known to underpin operational viability, can feasibly be manufactured locally? It also needs to understand whether manufacturing will benefit capability readiness sufficiently to outweigh the cost, financially and logistically; and, in an Accelerated Warfare context, how critical is it for the organisation to locally evolve its physical systems to operate in a competitive environment?

AM may well be the technology that a hypothetical manufacturing capability needs to make it feasible and beneficial to a Land or Joint Force. However, it is naive to view it as the solution to all supply chain or capability readiness gaps. By itself, it can achieve very little. As part of a connected manufacturing ecosystem, built around organisational needs, able to generate material on demand, all the while being accessible to the end user will it be placed to deliver what is expected of it, and possibly more.

Industrial manufacturing paradigms are evolving swiftly resulting in the popularisation of concepts such as ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. This hyper-connected, cyber-physical domain offers Defence genuine opportunities for supply chain innovation; however hard questions must be asked and answered first, before the organisation embarks on any such commitment. Ultimately, this is not about AM, but about whether Army, or Defence, wants to introduce manufacturing somewhere in or across organisations.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are made by this paper:

  • A study be undertaken, by or in consultation with Joint Logistics Command and/or Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, to ascertain what items in the Defence inventory can or should be manufactured by a deployable manufacturing capability
  • A feasibility study be undertaken to further explore industry best practice capabilities that could enable a deployable manufacturing capability, be it third party or Defence owned and operated[12]
  • Defence consider alternate sustainment models during materiel acquisition that work around IP constraints.

 

 

[1] Chapter 2, page 5 Principles and Practice - Australian Defence Industry and Exports, Commonwealth of Australia, 2015; and, 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement - Australian Government, Department of Defence

[2] Chief of Army Futures Statement – Accelerated Warfare, Lieutenant General Richard Burr, AO DSC MVO

[3] Referring to refined and semi-prepared material stock - not referring to mineral ore or equivalent

[4] Advanced manufacturing techniques presented by emerging technologies will create opportunities to use different materials and fundamentally change the design of some components for performance gains.

[5] Emergent trends from the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ are consistent with this new consumer-manufacturer paradigm - Prototype Warfare, Innovation and the Fourth Industrial Age – Peter Layton, Air Power Development Centre

[6] The number and types of Additive Manufacturing machines are vast, yet many vary from one another due to propriety reasons as much as technical differences. Due to the rapid development of this manufacturing technology, machine types will continue to evolve which may render this list obsolete quickly.

[7] Based on specifications provided by Renishaw®, Markforged, SLM Solutions®, 3D Systems Corporation®, and Emona Instruments Pty Ltd

[8] Like conventional manufacturing machines, AM machines require specialist set-up and calibration after movement. Therefore, a mounted ISO container based manufacturing system may have limitations with respect to manufacturing precision parts or achieving appropriate quality control.

[9] Days of supply (DOS) held by formation logistics organisations may vary from 7 to 21 days. Combat supplies (Class 3 and 5) are likely to be limited to 7 days, however classes such as Class 9 RPS may be arbitrarily set at 21 days.

[10] This is an area where an advanced manufacturing capability could add substantial value. A good example of this approach is in the Apple supply chain which uses multiple sources for the same component - A Case Study of Apple’s Supply Chain, Australian Institute of Company Directors, Sep 15

[11] Sovereign Defence Industry Capabilities, Independent Operations and the Future of Australian Defence Strategy – Stephen Frühling, Australian National University Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, 2017; and, Energy Security, Is there a problem? – Air Vice-Marshal (RETD) John Blackburn (published article in Australian Defence Magazine, September 2018)

[12] Consultancy organisations exist that specialise in analysing customer business models and asset inventories in order to advise on the feasibility, advantages, disadvantages, and total costs of introducing advanced manufacturing technologies into a given organisation. These consultants aim to provide objective advise and are generally not affiliated with a machine or manufacturing brand.

 

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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Discussion

Thomas Rose on 24 March 2020 - 2:48pm

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.

Nigel on 10 July 2020 - 7:08am

Some thoughts:

Manufacture of repair parts should occur as far forward as possible - in line with the maintenance philosophy.

Mass production should occur further back in the chain - the lines of support principles apply here too .

In WW2, REME base workshops mass-produced repair parts and equipment, the same is possible of RAEME in future operations.

For metallic additive manufacturing, ECN 235 and 146 possess the required underpinning knowledge and skills for printing and post-production finishing. These ECN combined with Engineering Officers form a potent team for prototyping and small scale production.

Operating the machines could become 'non-technical' but post-production finishing and certification will likely remain a technical function.  

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