Adjusting to an additive reality

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing will have a profound impact on defense firms. Ironically, the military’s adoption of 3D printers may affect its industrial complex most.

Many defense manufacturers such as Boeing or DRS already put 3D printers to work. At first these machines were used to build prototypes. Today, they produce working parts. 3D printers waste fewer raw materials, improve efficiency through rapid prototyping, allow for mass production of bespoke parts, and reduce the need for inventories.

3D printing can make manufacturers much more efficient and innovative, resulting in substantial savings for defense companies and in turn the taxpayer.

However, if the industry fails to address and dynamically adapt to two emerging trends some of its participants may suffer market consequences. First, 3D printers will bring more competition into the market. Smaller firms will be able to manufacture advanced parts and in many instances supply them directly to the Pentagon. This to many is a welcome development.

Second the armed forces may eventually procure 3D printers instead of finished products; this could make the industry a burdensome middleman. To be sure, 3D printers won’t print ships or planes. But imagine the possibilities! 3D printers could replace literally truckloads of pallet containers filled with spare parts; everything from toilet seats and pens to oil filters and vehicle tracks could be printed. Instead of having any and every conceivable part manufactured, stocked, and transported to every base globally, a few 3D printers on location could produce replacement parts when needed.

On ships, 3D printers could remove entire rooms of what-if-something-happens parts. This could, for example, provide space for new electronic systems, berths, arms materiel or aid supplies. While emergency parts are still required, “gaskets, nuts, bolts and circuit boards” as one former US Navy Lieutenant told the author could be produced on a 3D printer, especially as that technology matures.

And on the front lines 3D printers, as one former Army Infantry Officer postulated, could be used to manufacture replacement parts for “night vision devices, weapons, radios, and related items.”

So what are they and how do they work?

Let’s leave defense for a moment. (This is a long one, if you are familiar with 3D printers skip to the Current uses section below).

The technology is not new. The evolution of 3D printing began in 1984 when the first printer was built by Charles Hull. 3D printers do what they say, “print” objects. As Michael Weinberg in his breakthrough paper It Will be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up explains, a 3D printer “can turn a blueprint into a physical object. Feed it a design of a wrench, and it produces a physical, working wrench.”

A 3D printing machine builds objects by particle or layer. Two common approaches are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). FDM exudes a “hot thermoplastic from a temperature-controlled print head to produce objects” while SLS “builds objects by laying down a fine layer of powder and then using a laser to selectively fuse some of its granules together.”

Large scale 3D printer

Monolite's huge 3D printer used to make buildings out of sand and inorganic binder. It works by spraying a thin layer of sand and a layer of magnesium-based binder from hundreds of nozzles. The glue turns the sand to solid stone." Source: David Kirkpatrick

The key to SLS is that it can build objects from a variety of materials, such as “polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, steel, titanium, aluminum, and even sterling silver.” (See Christopher Barnett’s detailed explanation of 3D printing and its techniques here.)

3D printers can manufacture products with varied properties and internal structures and another long awaited trend is emerging. Some 3D printers are now able to “in a single build process, print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties.”

The broader implications

There are several. First, because 3D printers build objects from bits of material and not entire blocks they can “create structures that would be impossible” to produce otherwise. For example they could produce a solid object with internal movable parts. Normally this would call for a separate assembly process. They could also push the boundaries of design to form factors traditional manufacturing approaches would not permit.

Second, 3D printers let firms prototype and innovative rapidly. Products are normally designed and drawn conceptually. They are then modeled in say clay and designed in CAD or another computer program. Engineers will then commonly make a crude working model using spare or DIY parts. At this point, if all goes to plan a factory will manufacture a prototype batch. Products are then tested. And finally assembly lines are readied for mass production. With a 3D printer companies can prototype rapidly and skip many of these steps.

Third, with 3D printers it is possible to customize on a large scale. Today, most products are made uniformly. But assuming manufacturing plants could instead use 3D printers you could start to imagine a world where customers can order customized products that are designed, prototyped, and manufactured only after an order is received.

This is made possible with the advent of 3D scanners, objects that can literally scan any physical world item, turn it into a readable file, and then have a 3D printer manufacture an identical replica. Today, these may vary in material composition or size. But they are already capable, for instance, of manufacturing shoe prototypes based on foot scans. Imagine a running shoe that actually fits perfectly.

This radically transforms markets.

Finally, the adoption of 3D printers does not end here. In fact, in the future some envision a 3D printer – like it was once for the PC – in every home. People will be able to print what they ordered at home and all they will need is the source code; a file that will be as easy to download as a song. Alternatively, products may be produced at a local 3D printing shop. (This is something UPS and FedEx stores should start considering).

Growing market demand

One of the main drivers of 3D printer growth is that there is a widespread community of enthusiasts – not just firms – that are inventing in this space. For example, Brook Drumm started an “open hardware” project on Kickstarter to build and ship 3D printer kits “that anyone can build.” His Printbot is the “simplest 3D printer” and can be assembled in a couple of hours. After that it can “print” its own replacement and additional parts to help the user expand their options. Brook’s goal was simple: he needed $25,000 to help him scale production. At the time of this writing 1,808 people backed his project and his Printbot raised $830,827. Now that’s hitting a goal!

3D printing is a booming market, to say the least. In fact, it is expected to “reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.” I would venture to guess that these figures are very conservative. There are two reasons for this growth. First, and simply, many more companies find 3D printers useful and are buying them. Second, 3D printers have evolved and are no longer utilized just to produce product prototype models. In fact, as The Economist notes:

“As 3D printers have become more capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, including production-grade plastics and metals, the machines are increasingly being used to make final products too. More than 20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes, according to Terry Wohlers, who runs a research firm specializing in the field. He predicts that this will rise to 50% by 2020.”

If 3D printers ever mature to become ubiquitous the figures above may amount to just a fraction of the market.

And it’s not just companies; universities are wholly adopting 3D printers. Although explicit reports are hard to come by, there is an undercurrent of agreement in the industry that 3D printing really will transform manufacturing. No one knows for certain when. It may not be in two years, but it likely won’t be 20 either.

Current uses

Aerospace companies were this industry’s early adopters. (As I mentioned before, 3D printers do not manufacture entire platforms yet, so for large manufacturers and system integrators they are all opportunity with little chance of disruption.) 3D printing for Boeing or Airbus is an obvious choice. As The Economists special report explains:

“Aircraft-makers have already replaced a lot of the metal in the structure of planes with lightweight carbon-fiber composites. But even a small airliner still contains several tons of costly aerospace-grade titanium. These parts have usually been machined from solid billets, which can result in 90% of the material being cut away. This swarf is no longer of any use for making aircraft.

To make the same part with additive manufacturing, EADS starts with a titanium powder. The firm’s 3D printers spread a layer about 20-30 microns (0.02-0.03mm) thick onto a tray where it is fused by lasers or an electron beam. Any surplus powder can be reused. Some objects may need a little machining to finish, but they still require only 10% of the raw material that would otherwise be needed. Moreover, the process uses less energy than a conventional factory. It is sometimes faster, too.

Boeing has used additive manufacturing to print “assembly jig inserts.” And sports car makers have used 3D printing “molds for carbon-composite panels. Machining or sculpting the complex curves required for these body panels is far too time consuming and expensive to do any other way.”

DRS Tactical Systems, a subsidiary of DRS Technologies, a major defense firm, specializes in manufacturing handheld and tablet computing devices for the military. The company’s ARMOR family of devices is designed to work in extreme, outdoor environments. Several years ago, DRS began designing new, smaller models of their devices. At first, it sought 3D models from a specialty firm, but as early as 2008 its tactical systems engineers decided to acquire an Object Eden 500V 3D printer to model the new line of ARMOR products. Using the 3D printers helped DRS “cut the development cycle by approximately 25 to 40 percent, and the cost of development was reduced by two thirds.” Simply put, a 3D printer got “DRS products to market faster.”

And smaller firms such as RedEye, a 3D manufacturing unit of Stratasys, Inc. has recently earned AS9100C certification. Such level of certification means that it can manufacture parts for the aviation, space, and defense industries. It can now use FDM to make parts that can be “applied to end use in commercial, hobby, and military applications.”

 Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA

Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA

Robotic labs are also using 3D printers to design a wide variety of devices. For example Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation created a high-tech spider that is able to crawl through spaces that are hazardous. It could, for example, enter areas stricken by “natural disasters or industrial accidents.” It was made with a 3D printer that applied “layers of a fine polyamide powder with the aid of a laser beam.” The most remarkable aspect about this robot, as its engineers remarked is that it cost only €500 to build. It was so inexpensive strictly because it was manufactured on a 3D printer and not conventionally. Robots that are manufactured in this way could be sent into nuclear fall-out zones for instance and – at that price – could then simply be disposed of.

Anticipating disruption

No one knows why Special Operations Command (SOCOM) procured a 3D printer late last year. However, their intention seems obvious. For now they are experimenting. As Danger Room reported, SOCOM had their eyes on a Stratasys Dimension BST1200es printer.

DARPA, for example, is taking the long view at 3D printing. It will place 1,000 “production quality 3D printers in high schools across” the country. The forward looking defense agency also launched a factory of the future initiative titled Instant Foundry Adaptive Through Bits (IFAB) program. The goal of the program is to “reduce the product cycle of defense systems from an average of almost 10 years down to two years. According to an Ars Technica article, to accomplish this task DARPA is funding software programs that will let engineers “design, prototype and test systems collaboratively before they are ever built.”

And the agency announced that IFAB will develop “a computer-driven flexible manufacturing capability that will allow for distributed, software-driven manufacturing of systems in ‘foundries’ that can be quickly reconfigured to new tasks, using technologies like computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machine tools” and 3D printing “to scale up rapidly from prototype to full production.”

And in the UK, 3D printers have been used to produce small UAVs. (See this post’s opening video). But the stories don’t end there.

The military is already using 3D printers to manufacture multidimensional maps. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers has been doing this since 2005 when it used a ZPrinter to map Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The Engineers were able to see topography differently, providing a richer and better analysis of the situation on the ground.

New 3D printing technology that could manufacture products from multiple materials is invaluable to defense. It could be used to generate products that are impact resistant and can absorb shock. They, as Object’s site suggests, could produce gaskets and seals among a variety of other widgets.

3D printers could radically transform the defense industry, its procurement practices, and as a result be an answer to large-scale cost overruns and inefficiencies. (This post is designed to be an opening to this discussion. Other topics – such as how 3D printers could be used by competing countries to close the technological gap at a lower cost, as well as the cybersecurity implications of stealing product designs and just printing them will be discussed in subsequent entries).

Could the Pentagon print itself out of gargantuan budget? That remains an open-ended question. But the technology is there and it will soon hit a maturity curve of exponential improvement and growth. Defense firms have the cash to make major investments into additive manufacturing and help usher it into the mainstream. They could – and some are already proving wiser than others – be one of the first industries to recognize a disruptive technology and do something about it. In other words: save themselves.

The other trend – the military’s own adoption of 3D printers that would undoubtedly improve the capability of the warfighter and reduce overall costs – also could eliminate entire departments from defense manufacturers. But this is only true if you imagine defense firms to be static and unable to adopt to change. The military is not in the business of designing or building platforms, albeit in many cases it does own the intellectual property. It will look to the industry to provide the printers, the materials, the designs, the maintenance and the services. Large platforms will still need to be envisioned and assembled. 3D printing is the opportunity, it is not a threat.


2 responses to “Adjusting to an additive reality

  • Roadwolfo (@Roadwolfo)

    I very much agree with your view; very insightful. Would be very interesting to see how governments regulate this new venue for business development, adoption, creativity and innovation. I did read somewhere else that there are other industries that are very keen on moving forwards with this technology (ie. the medical industry 3D-printing organs). Yes, possibilities are endless, but how much longer can we dream before it is too late…

    • MG

      Thanks for your response. The end state for 3D printing is to have one in every home and one in every hospital to literally, as you said, manufacture organs. Prototypes already exist. I don’t think it will ever be too late. The fear, for sure, is government response. One of the papers I cited in the report (see here: discusses government regulation in the US context. Please, if you know of other reports, from Europe or Latin America – post them here. The open hardware movement that makes 3D printing innovation possible today, I think, will determine the next few years of this technology’s evolution.

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