TAMPA, Fla. — Even before the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center unveils its newest modernization effort, the technology used to 3D print large metal components is winning awards at North America’s premier military, aerospace and defense 3D printing event.
“[The technology] opens up the aperture of our capabilities,” said Edward Flinn, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence at RIA-JMTC. “This is a one-of-a-kind device.”
The so-called Jointless Hull machine is the world’s largest additive and subtractive manufacturing apparatus. It’s located within the 3 million square feet of RIA-JMTC’s footprint at Rock Island Arsenal and earned the 2024 Technical Achievement Award for 3D Printing Innovation at the 8th Annual Military Additive Manufacturing Summit & Technology Showcase.
The equipment was built for the U.S. Army in conjunction with RIA-JMTC, the U.S. Army Ground Systems Center, Ingersoll Machine Tool, the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America, Siemens and LIFT. The Jointless Hull is operated by the extremely talented workforce of Department of the Army civilians and transforms the manufacturing capabilities at RIA-JMTC.
“To be able to 3D print something that is forging level quality didn’t exist until now,” said Flinn. “In the past, except for some unique situations, it’s always been a weldment or assembly using conventional techniques. The joints were always the weakest section of the part. This new system makes it possible for people to not worry about the joints or seams because you can make it in one piece.”
The advancement combines additive friction stir deposition technology developed by Meld Manufacturing and Ingersoll Machine Tool’s Gantry crane system. The collective efforts result in the largest library of materials that can be directly 3D metal printed and machined without a heat treat cycle in between.
“The technology is a way to print metal with the same properties that you would get from like a blacksmith with a hammer,” said Chase Cox, vice president of Meld Manufacturing. “So, you get metal hot, put pressure on it and it forms and changes shape. The only difference here is we don’t have a hammer. We have a machine that’s applying the force and we’re rotating that material to get the heat built up. From there, the material can deposit much like a plastic printer.”
The process opens new doors for metal manufacturing for the U.S. Army. The Jointless Hull has a print volume of 20 feet, by 30 feet, by 12 feet, which opens the door for larger metal 3D prints down the road and could eventually build equipment the size of tank hulls with minimal use of traditional manufacturing processes.
The prototype equipment is part of the U.S. Army’s new 15-year, $4.5 billion modernization plan across its organic industrial base. Army Materiel Command will oversee the transition at RIA-JMTC which will include a new thick aluminum line, upgrades to the factory’s foundry and several other projects schedule ahead of 2030 and beyond.
“RIA-JMTC is extremely proud of this great achievement in manufacturing by our team and partners, and we’re excited to be paving a path forward with this technology,” said Col. David Guida, commanding officer of RIA-JMTC. “Not only will it allow us to utilize this type of equipment before anyone else in the world, but it will also make sure our organization continues leading the way for the U.S. Army’s modernization efforts across the OIB.”
The future capabilities of the Jointless Hull could still lead to upcoming advancements in 3D metal printing technology, which would align with RIA-JMTC’s vision of producing high-quality, on-time readiness solutions for the warfighter while modernizing for the next fight. The machine could eventually run around the clock without employee supervision, decreasing the time it takes to manufacture and deliver products, while still producing stronger and more reliable components.
“[This project is] a representation of the successes we can have when the government and [private] industry work together to create something new and innovative,” said Larry Holmes, director of government relations for ASTRO America. “The U.S. Army is taking huge strides in developing new manufacturing technologies, but it also requires the help of people in the industry.”