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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 http://ow.ly/a3gyi

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.


The collapse of British air power

British air power has declined. If the UK does not adjust to this reality it will find its relevance as a military power questioned.

The implications are twofold. First, the United States may begin to doubt Britain’s value as a major ally in international operations. And its leaders may begin to treat British involvement more as a cost burden or even a liability. Second, British decline in its ability to project force – similarly to the country’s woes on the high seas – will invariably cause its industrial capability to fall precipitously.

Current headlines suggest that a decade of conflict and a global – well Western – economic recession have placed immeasurable pressures on military procurement. And this is true. But what’s important to analyze is that the degeneration of British air power has occurred over several decades and has been almost systemic.

The order of battle

In the 1980s – shortly after The Falklands War – the Royal Air Force (RAF) foresaw a future fleet of 30 fast jet squadrons for the 1990s.

At that time, the following aircraft would comprise these groupings: seven Tornado ADV, eleven Tornado IDS, three Harrier, four Phantom FGR-2, three Jaguar, and two Buccaneer squadrons. The RAF at that time planned to replace all nine of the Buccaneer, Jaguar, and Phantom squadrons with another aircraft that has become the Typhoon (Eurofighter). The RAF hoped for 385 Tornados, 250 Typhoons, and 96 Harriers; for a total of 731 jets.

These aircraft were not the only ones the UK planned on in the 1980s. The British Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA) operated two Sea Harrier squadrons comprised of 51 aircraft. Thus the UK could call on a total of 782 jets to project power.

In support of this highly formidable force the RAF flew 34 Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. And pilots had the luxury to train on a fleet of Hawk trainers of which 72 Hawk were equipped to carry AIM-9 Sidewinders.

There was a strong tanker and transport fleet as well. The UK operated approximately 20 Handley Page Victor’s as tankers, around 20 VC10s as refueling and transport aircraft, and  nine converted Lockheed Tri-Stars. Finally, the UK could also rely on 60 C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

At some point between 1990 and today, Britain went through multiple strategic reviews. Each one incrementally decreased its air power. Today, these decisions seem devastating and irreversible.

Defense reviews and systemic decline

The first four defense reviews (1990 Options for Change, 1998 Strategic Defense Review, 2002 SDR New Chapter, and the 2003 Defense White Paper), along with some sporadic decisions in between, cut down UK fast jet squadrons from 30 to 12. And the fleet of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was reduced from 34 to 12.

The next review would continue the incremental cutting but would also strip out some core capabilities.

The 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) removed all remaining Harriers, leaving the UK with no carrier capable aircraft.

The SDSR also reduced the Tornado fleet by two squadrons. This left the RAF with only eight fast-jet squadrons comprised of five Tornado and three Typhoon units. The ratio is slowly changing to the Typhoon as more Tornados are retired and Typhoons built.

But the dance continues. In December 2010, the Air Vice-Marshal of the RAF, Greg Bagwell stated that his organization was headed toward a scenario where it would have just six fast jet squadrons left consisting of five Typhoon and one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) squadron that would replace the final Tornado unit.

The issue here is bifurcated. Not only is this scenario unconfirmed, but the uncertainty over the F-35 program or its procured quantities remains unsettled. The decisions over the F-35 will not be finalized until 2015. And recent news makes the whole adventure questionable. It is unlikely that the UK will operate many more than 50 JSFs, down from its previous requirement of 138.

It is, however, expected that the Typhoon force will be stabilized at 107 aircraft.

And thus, after all these strategies the UK fast jet force has been reduced to just one quarter of the 32 fast-jet squadrons the UK military planned on in the 1980s. And if Greg Bagwell is right, then this number would actually fall to under 20 percent of previously expected levels.

Can it get any worse?

Yes it can. At some point in 1990, British citizens expected 782 fast jets. By 2016, they will likely have 150. And here is the kicker. Not only does Britain currently not have an ability to project air power from carriers – or carriers for that matter – but the island nation no longer has a maritime patrol program since the SDSR obliterated the Nimrod.

And the UK almost decided to take the Sentinel out of service, albeit this decision may be reversed after the Libya operation, and ongoing Afghanistan missions, where the country used it successfully.

Transport fleets – another critical element of power that the UK would need to project force – have also been reduced. The C-130J fleet will be taken out of service by 2022, taking 25 transport planes out with it. Instead the UK will rely on the A400M, quantities of which have been reduced from 25 to 22. And the country will maintain only eight C-17 and 14 Airbus A330 multi-role tankers.

Drawing a parallel

The cumulative effect of these cuts has reached a tipping point. India, for example, now has more than 32 squadrons and is planning for 42 by 2022. Australia has five fast jet squadrons, and plans to re-equip three of them with F-35s (pending any cancellations). And across the channel, the French Air Force will operate ten Rafale squadrons from land and three from the sea. Even Norway retains three F-16 squadrons that will be entirely re-equipped with JSFs.

Looking for a pulse

It is undeniable that jet counting is an imperfect metric. In the past 20 years aircraft have improved substantially. New jets are able to locate and strike targets exponentially better than their predecessors. New sensors such as the RAPTOR or Lightening III pods for fast jets coupled with new weapons such as the Brimstone or Storm Shadow radically enhance combat jet performance.

In addition, whole new facets of air power have been added. Most notably, the UK installed the Tomahawk cruise missile on its nuclear attack submarines. Sadly, however, this program has suffered its own reductions. To provide strategic and tactical targeting five Raytheon Sentinel surveillance aircraft have entered service, following a procurement program that began in the 80s.

The British Army has also acquired 67 WAH-64D Apaches which it can now (as it did in the Libyan campaign) deploy from Royal Navy helicopter carriers.

And the country has made investments in drones. The RAF will soon stand-up it’s second MQ-9 Reaper squadron. And the Army Air Corp is starting to adopt the Watchkeeper UAV. It expects to have 54 aircraft in total.

An empty throttle

These programs, however, hardly make up for the 75-80 percent reduction in the number of UK fast-jet squadrons. Neither do they make up for UK’s complete sacrifice of maritime patrol capability, the elimination of the carrier based vertical and short take-off and landing (V/STOL) Harriers or the near halving of the transport aircraft force.

All of this will change Britain’s place in the world. And its closest ally – the United States – may feel slighted that its partner can no longer punch its weight. Let alone above it. This should reverberate throughout the Pentagon. The US is currently operating under the assumption that its partners will close the gap it is about to create. It should think again.

Industrial malaise

And finally, such reductions in air power will likely correlate with a dramatic decline in industrial capability. Knock-on effects are unavoidable. The Typhoon, for example, albeit a multinational project, was heavily dependent on research and development work undertaken in the UK. The radar was derived from a Ferranti research project and the engines from work by Rolls-Royce. And BAE built a canard delta demonstrator.

The Tornado too was mostly designed in the UK. And while the French, for example, have gone out of their way to maintain Dassault through the sale of the Rafale, the UK has scrapped its flagship Harrier.

The UK has no indigenous 5th generation fighter program. All while Russia, China, India, Japan, and even South Korea (with Indonesia) do. The UK is, however, doing some work on advanced UAVs such as the Taranis and Mantis programs.

The Taranis, for example, resembles the Northrop Grumman X-47B and may provide the basis for a new UCAV slated to enter service only in 2030 (the stated out of service date for the Typhoon). Although UK firms have won a range of other UAV-related technology contracts, it is uncertain that they will provide much capital power to the industrial base.

Job losses have already begun. BAE confirmed 845 layoffs at its Brough site in March 2012. More will come when Typhoon production ends in 2017.

After the Cold War there was an impetus to reduce defense expenditure and inventories, but the UK has systematically slashed its air power to a point that it can no longer be considered a major force. And its once praised aerospace and defense industry will invariably suffer a similar fate. These trends are seemingly irreversible.

It will take strong government leadership and tough choices to – at the very least – sustain the country as a worthwhile partner to the US both militarily and industrially.

The nuclear power of arms sales

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

The Indian government selected the French Dassault Rafale as a frontrunner in its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Concluding (almost) a multi-year dog-fight between the Rafale and five other competitors: American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16, European Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian RSK MiG-35, and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Toward the end of this battle only two jets stood to win the prize, the French Rafale and – well – the quarter-French EADS Eurofighter Typhoon. Dassault will now begin supplying India with 126 freshly-minted jets.

The size of the order may amount to $20 billion, enough to help bolster the French defense industrial base.

And France pulled out all the stops to secure this win. Three primary reasons explain its victory. The last one may surprise some. First, it was cost. Dassault won because it bid the lowest; a benefit of government subsidies. Losing this competition may have ended French indigenous military aircraft capability, which it clearly thinks is worth protecting.

The games are not over, however. From now until April 2012, the company and its puppet-master the French government are likely to engage in fierce negotiations over details. But winning the frontrunner spot in India still has its risks “until the contract is physically signed.” Negotiations will determine the details of the acquisition: price, life-cycle support, training, and offsets.

This leads us to the second point. France and its national champion were willing to provide a technology transfer package to India. The competitors (and especially the US ones) were not. Thus, 108 of 126 Rafale fighters will be produced at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s largest aerospace company. Not in France. As a reminder, virtually all Indian defense enterprises are state-owned.

And Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has agreed to more than just offsets and technology transfer. Software codes – source codes par industry lingo – will also be provided. This would “allow India to re-program radars and other sensitive equipment.” And in doing so, reveal how they work.

One cannot accuse India of nefarious corporate espionage practices (in fact France would rank far higher on that list) or of being a technology proliferator. But in this deal, India will gain substantial know-how and it will use it for its own competitive advantage in the future. Who can blame them?

Finally, we need to understand why Dassault really won. Price, competitive specifications, technology transfer, offsets, and source codes add to the mix. But it is nuclear cooperation between India and France, signed a few years ago, that sealed the deal.

Don’t underestimate nuclear power

This is of little doubt. France signed a nuclear agreement with India in 2008; a year after the initial MMRCA tender was announced. France’s other national champion, the nuclear energy powerhouse Areva was contracted to build at least two nuclear reactors in India.

During negotiations that took place from 2008 to 2010, France and India recognized that “it is in their mutual interest to broad-base economic relations” and agreed to increase their trade, especially in sovereign industries (or so I call them): arms and nuclear energy.

The $9 billion contract to build two nuclear power-plants in India, solidified France’s position in the country. France and Areva plan to build four more “reactors for the Maharashtra nuclear plant.” Both the nuclear and defense deals are negotiated at the highest levels and during the same meetings, suggesting interchangeability of objectives and tradeoffs.


First, price, technology transfer, and offsets are indicative of requirements that all emerging powers will require. Weapons platforms such as the F-35 would lose on all counts. And while the US has already entertained the sale of F-35s to India, everything about the Rafale win indicates that the door is closed.

When India decides that it wants to acquire a 5th generation fighter, it may opt-out for the Russian PAK FA T-50. This would be a shame.

Second, instead of building a strong industrial base, Europeans are destructively competing for international tenders. France – and even Dassault itself – is involved in the Eurofighter Typhoon. The second place finisher in the MMRCA competition.

Europe continues to govern itself by protectionist sensibilities over defense industries. These policies are grounded in realism, which I appreciate. If all other headlines from Europe are of any indication, then this will surely continue. And this is exactly why the US – while formulating its own security strategy – may hope for allied assistance, but should not rely on it.

Finally, there is one more international fighter competition that has been brewing. Brazil plans to soon acquire 36 fighters in its FX-2 fighter deal. The competition, however, will be fierce. A decision is due in the next several months. And once again, the French Rafale may win.

The announced victory in India will only bolster its chances. All the usual suspects – which Brazil wants and demands as much as India – such as technology transfers and offsets will be offered. In addition, France is working with Brazil on a nuclear submarine project. If the Rafale wins in Brazil, then it may be time for analysts to pay closer attention to whole-of-government (to adopt a term) competitive advantages and not just specifications, offsets, and costs.

Image source: taken by the author at the 2009 Paris Air Show

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