Top Ten Uses for Additive Manufacturing for Defense

IDGA Staff

Below, you’ll find the top ten uses of additive manufacturing in the defense industry. The list also includes notes on related sessions at the Additive Manufacturing for Defense Summit.

1. To create prototypes:
3D printing enables designers to skip the fabrication of tools and go straight to finished parts. And although printing a prototype part might take several hours, it is still significantly faster than building tools that are then used to fabricate prototype parts. This ability to quickly fabricate prototypes enables engineers to validate design concepts faster, speeding up the overall development process.

2. To design concepts & mock-ups:
Design and manufacturing engineers can use these prototypes as a tool to better communicate how a design looks, feels, and operates allowing for the product design to integrate with manufacturing at an earlier stage in the development lifecycle. "The defense industry has printed the silhouettes of planes that are used on the mock-up of the flight deck to keep the flight deck organized", Said Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

3. To build satellite brackets:
Additive manufacturing allows engineers to create complex brackets that are able to fit inside small spaces. Instrumentation, such as sensors, can then be added. "You need a lot of design functionality for a really tight little space in a satellite where every square inch and every pound in a satellite costs an enormous amount", said David Dietrich research and technology lead engineer for additive manufacturing in metals.

4. For small-volume production:

Certain low-volume, weight-sensitive products are opening up additional opportunities for 3D printed parts. Satellites and launch vehicles, for example, require intricately designed parts to reduce weight and minimize packaging space. Many of these parts are produced in very small quantities and are very expensive to fabricate using traditional machining or injection molding technologies. In many cases, these kinds of parts can be fabricated more quickly and cost-effectively than via traditional processes.

5. To produce clothing and wearable sensors:
The industry is researching the use of 3D printing to produce combat uniforms with rigid areas for protection but with flexible areas around joints for movement (witch is hard to accomplish with a regular textile), that would also eliminate a lot of seams in clothing, making it more comfortable and less likely to chafe. 3D printing allows the defense industry to produce less expensive armor and custom clothing designed for specific jobs. It could also allow for incorporating ballistics materials and sensors into clothing. "We could create something that is a totally perfect fit and reduce weight, maybe reduce bulk. A lot of the neat textiles that are being 3D printed, even out of these synthetics, have a 3D structure to them", Said Annette LaFleur, Pattern and Prototype team leader at The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.

6. To print food:
Researchers at The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center are working to adapt and improve food printing technologies for the Army’s needs. Among the benefits are that it would cut costs and it could allow soldiers to include specific nutrients they might be lacking. Other targets include maintaining a long shelf life, such as the three-year life of the Army’s Meals-Ready-to-Eat.

7. To build engines:
In June, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced it had successfully tested an engine built entirely using additive manufacturing. "The engine, which is normally comprised of dozens of parts, consisted of only three additive-manufactured components: the entire injector and dome assembly; the combustion chamber; and a throat and nozzle section," the company said in a statement earlier this year. The aerospace industry is adopting additive manufacturing at a very fast rate because the 3D print aircraft engine parts will take weight out and save fuel. NASA is also using 3D printing to fabricate parts for its rocket engines

8. For demonstration units:
3D printing is emerging as a viable technology for supporting rapid development and fabrication of technology demonstration units. TD units, used by the government to evaluate functionality and cull design concepts, are a market extension for 3D printed parts. Quantities are small, delivery lead times are short, and budgets are tight, particularly in today’s defense spending environment. 3D printing enables manufacturers to fabricate parts of complex shape, bypassing expensive and time-consuming prototype tooling.

9. For logistics purposes:
The effort to develop additive manufacturing for the Army would be worthwhile. Technology may well have a significant impact on how the military provides specialty tools, custom parts and replacements for obsolete parts to deployed Soldiers, who are often at remote FOBs. The Army has deployed two 3-D printers in Afghanistan to provide soldiers with small parts on demand, and some service officials have called for more widespread distribution. "If you are a Soldier in a FOB in Afghanistan, everything is different, It’s not as easy as running down to the Home Depot and picking up a screwdriver", Said James Zunino, a materials engineer for the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. In any signifcant deployment, an untold numbers of parts, tools and spares add up to comprise a military logistical tail."Those costs add up, when you add all the transportation costs, fuel, security, it then might be cheaper to be able to print one", Said Zunino.

10. To treat injured soldiers:

The U.S. Army is a significant proponent and investor in regenerative medicine and 3-D bio-printing. Scientists are aiming to advance this new research area to help injured service members recover from the wounds of war. Blasts from improvised explosive devices have increased the number of Soldiers experiencing the loss of limbs, catastrophic injuries to the face and severe burns "there was an increasing need to deliver therapies for wounded warriors. We saw a spike in the severity of the trauma that these Soldiers were receiving. As we increased the quality of battle armor, the injuries they were surviving were that much more debilitating", said Dr. Michael Romanko, who provides science and technology management support for the Tissue Injury and Regenerative Medicine Project Management Office with the U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity. The Department of Defense, in turn, established the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine in 2008. Regenerative medicine aims to replace or regenerate human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function.