Last week we reported on how British multinational defense company, BAE Systems plans to harness its military and civil aircraft with 3D printing capabilities by the year 2040.
Although their use of 3D technology may be incredibly futuristic and complex, it appears that the UK Navy and US Army have already beaten them to it, albeit using 3D printing in a much simpler way.
Replacing spare parts has always been an issue with any military force, whether it is an intricate piece of machinery, or a simple item of molded plastic. But as Capt. Jim Loper, at the Fleet Readiness Centre in Norfolk, England will tell you: “A lot of times, it’s not the $100,000 part that really drives you crazy because those are in the stock system. It is the $1 little plastic part that really drives you crazy.”
Capt. Loper is the head of the concepts and innovation department at Navy Warfare Development Command at Fleet, and believes that having a 3D printer on board naval ships could save a lot of time, hassle and money. He and his crew have already started experimenting, with the fleet producing gas/spare caps, tools, phone-jack plates, training aids, and scaled ship models, all in the last year.
Having the technology on board the ships has meant that the sailors are able to print out a required part, once they’ve obtained the blueprint. But it hasn’t been all ‘plain sailing’. The Navy has had to deal with copyright issues, obtaining the right materials and dealing with the complexities that being out in the middle of the ocean creates. The main one of which is how to operate the 3D printer in choppy waters. “
A printer in a steady, climate-controlled environment is going to have a different result than a printer on a ship that is rocking and rolling. It is a little more difficult to control temperature and humidity on a ship, and you have to contend with a constant vibration.” Capt. Loper said.
There is also the question of the stringent testing that certain parts have to go through and the high levels of quality control that they need to pass. Items that are deemed ‘mission-critical’ have to be rigorously tested and certified, in some cases within specially constructed environments, which can only be done on land. This really negates the whole idea of having a 3D printer on-board in the first place.
So is the US Army facing similar problems with having 3D printers at base camps, or is everything going smoothly? They certainly face the same supply dilemmas, as they require specific goods that have to be ordered from specialist suppliers. And the problem is magnified if a soldier is deployed abroad, as the spare part would have to be shipped from the supplier, via a seaport or airport, where it would then have to be transported to the camp. Getting spare parts is therefore time consuming, costly and can be complicated.
James Zunino is a materials engineer for the US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, and he has been experimenting with 3D printing, specifically metal gun parts. He says that printing the parts has not proved to be problematic, but printing to military standards is a different matter: “We’ve made a lot of parts and prototypes. In theory, if you have a certified operator, certified materials and a certified printer, you can make qualified parts.” Zunino said.
The problem is that the technology behind metal 3D printing has not yet caught up with 3D printing plastics, and until it does, the US Army’s hands are tied.
In the meantime, Zunino is using 3D printing in many other ways, to print molds and metals casts, and even getting his CAD designers to think in 3D when they imagine blast patterns.
“You can vastly simplify the manufacturing of energetic materials by printing them,” Zunino said. “When entrepreneurs can begin to inexpensively produce their dreams, additive manufacturing will help revolutionize the industrial base and the manufacturing revolution will begin.
So, it appears that 3D printing is going to make us more efficient on the battlefields. There are some people that would argue this isn’t necessarily a good idea.