By LJ Holmes – this piece originally ran in National Defense Magazine here.
From printing one-of-a-kind parts to enabling rapid, on-site repairs, additive manufacturing is disrupting the industrial base. Innovations in material and process have opened new possibilities, which are in turn fueling interest in the technology.
As markets such as automotive, aerospace and healthcare embrace additive capabilities, the opportunities will only increase. According to data from Grand View Research Inc., the global additive manufacturing industry could balloon to $76.16 billion by 2030. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 20.8 percent — far outpacing the trajectory of the broader manufacturing sector.
For the military, additive manufacturing has the capacity to address design vulnerabilities such as physical weaknesses in products that use traditional manufacturing methods. Meanwhile, federal and industry bodies are betting on its potential to solve long-standing supply chain issues.
Yet, despite promising advances, the defense sector still has a significant hurdle to overcome. To achieve widespread implementation, manufacturers at every tier of the distribution network must be willing to invest. But at present, large-scale corporations make up the majority of adopters.
While additive manufacturing is often considered an emerging technology, the earliest military uses date back to the late 1980s, when engineers began developing additive technology. However, the early use of terminology varied. It wasn’t until the 2000s that industry commentators popularized the term “additive manufacturing.”
Deploying a new technology — especially one lacking in industry-wide standards — is an arduous task. The U.S. military branches are some of the world’s most extensive and complex organizations. The Army alone accounts for more than two million personnel. With no consistent language and limited knowledge of the technology, few working in the industry in the 1980s and 1990s understood additive manufacturing’s potential. As a result, defense lagged other sectors in its acceptance.
That said, over the past three decades, the military has worked consistently to integrate it into its research-and-development functions. As each branch explored new ways to incorporate additive technology into its processes, researchers and engineers identified spaces where additive manufacturing could fill gaps and address challenges. At first, these were primarily use cases where the technology could complement conventional manufacturing techniques — for instance, printing tooling guides, jigs and fixtures.
A turning point came in early 2016 when the Defense Department initiated a series of workshops exploring the use of 3D printing in the military. Those findings grew into a report that provided a roadmap for the military’s widespread utilization of the techniques.
Today, every branch of the military has additive manufacturing represented in its research-and-development portfolios — from the Army Research Laboratory’s advanced manufacturing community of practice to the Navy Additive Manufacturing Technical Interchange. Over the past decade, these organizational branches have increasingly leaned on additive manufacturing to enhance production efforts on the base and in the field.
In November 2022, the Navy for the first time permanently installed a metal 3D printer aboard one of its ships. The machine, which prints stainless steel, will equip the crew with industrial-level manufacturing capabilities, allowing them to produce on-demand pieces that were previously unavailable. In reducing reliance on third-party providers, the technology will enable new self-sufficiency in ships and crews, helping the Navy to overcome lead time delays and obsolescence issues.
Metal is not the only material that the military is experimenting with. Since 2015, engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Engineer Research and Development Center and the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory have been working to develop technology that can print construction-scale structures such as buildings and bridges.
Through the Additive Construction program, now in its sixth year, these engineers have developed more than five large-scale machines capable of printing concrete. So far, the team behind it has successfully produced two 512-square-foot buildings alongside smaller-scale constructions, including guard shelters and barriers. This construction method can save labor costs and reduce planning time while improving a structure’s strength and stability.
Additive technology can solve problems posed by the limitations of conventional production methods, too. Announced in 2020, the Jointless Hull Project aims to do just that.
Analysts estimate that, since the Vietnam War, approximately 73 percent of vehicle losses resulted from underbody blasts. In fact, they were the leading cause of death for U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because manufacturers produce vehicle hulls by welding together multiple parts, vehicle underbodies have joints — and these weak points make them vulnerable to roadside bombs. The Jointless Hull Project will use additive technology to print single, seamless combat hulls, eliminating weaknesses in vehicle bodies. This will improve ground vehicle resilience and reduce the damage caused by these attacks — ultimately increasing survivability.
Engineers working on the Jointless Hull Project have produced several metal hybrid manufacturing systems, one of which has a build volume of almost 30x20x12 feet, making it the world’s largest hybrid metal 3D printer. Thanks to the flexibility of additive technology, the machines can also undertake other tasks, including repairing other large metal components. This gives additive manufacturing a substantial edge over methods like casting, where molds can only produce one product.
With its broad applicability, additive manufacturing could markedly boost the pace, agility and capacity of U.S. suppliers, providing a much-needed antidote to recent supply chain difficulties. To do so, though, manufacturers must implement it at scale.
Even before the pandemic, the Defense Department was grappling with supply chain vulnerabilities, especially for microelectronics like semiconductors. As COVID-19 spread, lockdowns and labor shortages ground the production of materials and finished goods to a halt. Without enough workers available to transport products, delivery times slowed. And with no staff available to receive cargo, ships clogged ports. Meanwhile, geopolitical conflict only exacerbated the situation.
Like most sectors of industry, defense manufacturing felt the impact. From the steel and aluminum used to build boats and aircraft to small parts like brakes and gears, the sector’s reliance on foreign-made parts and materials was suddenly unsustainable.
The Aerospace Industries Association found that in 2020, the aerospace and defense sector lost more than 87,000 jobs. The association estimated that supply chain difficulties were responsible for 64 percent of those losses, with small and medium-sized businesses bearing most of the burden. The shortages hit small and mid-size suppliers specializing in low volume high mix parts particularly hard.
The ramifications, however, go far beyond the health of the economy. Within defense manufacturing, the absence of critical materials, parts and products that drive inflation and eat away at profits in other sectors can quickly rise to an issue of national security.
It was with this challenge in mind that, in May 2022, the Biden administration partnered with several major manufacturers to launch AM Forward. Through this multi-pronged initiative, the government hopes to tap into the ability of additive technologies to boost domestic production and enhance supply chain readiness.
Supported by the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America, or ASTRO, AM Forward will aid U.S. companies in bridging the gap to adoption by helping them to secure deals, purchase equipment and train workers. This voluntary program pairs leading manufacturers with smaller U.S.-based businesses. The participants include GE Aviation, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Siemens Energy.
Each will commit to sourcing a percentage of additively produced parts from domestic suppliers, thereby incentivizing the adoption of additive manufacturing on shop floors across the country. Participants will also commit resources to training and education, including through university and technical college programs and workforce development.
AM Forward intends to tackle another pervasive problem, too. Despite the growing popularity of 3D printing, the industry still lacks consistent guidelines for additive manufacturing technologies and products. Through AM Forward, research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology aims to change this by developing and distributing new high-priority standards.
Agile, nimble and flexible, the advanced capabilities of additive technology could change the face of manufacturing. Data from ASTRO America estimates that additive technology could reduce part lead times by as much as 90 percent when used in place of lengthy methods such as forging and casting.
The benefits don’t end there. The technology — which typically produces far less waste than traditional production methods — could cut material costs by 90 percent while reducing energy consumption by 50 percent.
Despite clear evidence that additive manufacturing can augment productivity, trim costs and bolster readiness, the defense sector’s embrace of additive technology has been relatively slow. Many manufacturers are only beginning to understand the vast possibility of additive manufacturing. Smaller manufacturers, who are often most exposed to supply chain disruptions, have been particularly late to realize the potential.
Fortunately, the community is growing. As it does, those working outside the field are becoming more aware of the resources available to them. SME — an association for professionals in the manufacturing industry — offers events, training and certification for those working with additive technology tools that could help domestic manufacturers upskill their workforces.
As an industry, it is crucial that we continue to invest in efforts to accelerate awareness and adoption. In doing so, we can increase the capacity of U.S. manufacturing, usher in new innovations and enhance the systems that support the military. ND
Larry (LJ) R. Holmes Jr. is the executive director of research and engineering at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, where he leads the development and operation of an Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute. He also serves as the director of government relations at nScrypt in Orlando, Florida, and the chief of manufacturing at the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America.