US Army turns to 3D printing for critical supplies

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No industry was immune to the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Factory closures, border delays, raw material shortages and production backlogs have impacted everything from healthcare and construction to manufacturing and technology.

A survey conducted by McKinsey found that in response to the pandemic, 93% of senior supply chain executives planned to make their supply chains more flexible, agile and resilient. It is important to mitigate future disruptions and thus ensure the long-term stability of the supply chain, but what happens when the resources needed here and now are inaccessible?

During the early months of the pandemic, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, addressed several challenges in the medical supply chain. Today, amid ongoing disruptions, the US military is stepping up its use of 3D printing to acquire mission-critical parts.

The rise of 3D printing in the US military

In February of this year, the Department of Defense (DoD) released an assessment of critical defense supply chains. The report recommended increased use of 3D printing to ensure mission success, advice the US military is already acting on.

The Arsenal Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence on Rock Island, for example, houses an extensive collection of 3D printing equipment. In January, the factory announced it was expecting a second metal 3D printer, which will take advantage of high-speed metal fabrication technology to quickly print tools and spare parts. Most recently, in June, Arsenal revealed that it will soon be home to the world’s largest metal 3D printer, the Large Format Tool with a Seamless Shell. The printer will be able to print metal 30 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 12 feet high.

It was announced last year that 3D printer maker ExOne had won a contract with the DoD to develop a 40-foot-long portable unit, which can be deployed to the front line by land, sea and air. Service members will be able to 3D print a digital file of a broken or damaged part and have a finished product in less than 48 hours.

Robert Gold, Director of Engineering Enterprise at the DoD, said, “Additive manufacturing provides the DoD with unprecedented supply chain agility while enabling our developers to maintain technological dominance of our Warfighters.”

Here is how these types of 3D printing technologies are applied.

Components and parts

Delivering 3D printing equipment to the frontlines allows militaries to acquire critical products and components efficiently, cost-effectively, and on-demand. In the event of a major crisis or equipment failure, downtime can be reduced from weeks or months to days. It also means that military bases, ships, and planes don’t have to store a lot of excess inventory because staff can just print what they need, when they need it.

Last month, it was reported that one of the largest US Navy warships was using a 3D printer to produce spare parts for drones.

Of course, 3D printing does not exclusively benefit frontline military operations. Knowing that several suppliers are struggling to meet the growing demand for submarine parts, the US Navy has decided to pair them with 3D printing companies. It is hoped that this will relieve some of the pressure on sole suppliers and speed up production.

As mentioned, improved efficiency is one of the main benefits of 3D printing. In January, Joint Base Langley-Eustis successfully printed a replacement flame arrester plug for a high-lift rig (vertical-extending rig for resupply operations) that had been inactive for nearly a year.

Medical material

In the military, immediate access to appropriate medical supplies, such as blood, can mean the difference between life and death. Ideally, a wounded civilian or soldier in need of a life-saving blood transfusion will be transported to a secure medical facility. But that’s not always possible in the middle of a war zone.

With this in mind, Delta’s development team, supported by Xometry’s digital manufacturing platform, developed a compact blood refrigeration unit called APRU. Injection molding, 3D printing and sheet metal cutting are used to develop the model that can withstand a variety of environmental hazards.

These units are already in use by several military branches and address many of the challenges associated with providing blood transfusions in remote areas. This includes access to sufficient quantities of blood and the means to keep it properly refrigerated. The design is durable, can withstand being dropped from an airplane, is heat resistant and will stay cool for up to four days.

Infrastructure

Additive manufacturing is also used in various aspects of military infrastructure.

Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies ITAMCO (ITAMCO), for example, has developed a 3D-printed runway for military expeditionary airfields. German company EOS has used its M290 3D printer to produce runway mats that can be installed on weaker ground surfaces, allowing military aircraft to land and take off.

Meanwhile, 3D printing company Icon has developed a 9,500-pound, 46.5-foot-wide machine called Vulcan to 3D print entire army barracks. Over the next 10 months, three 5,700 square foot barracks will be built in Fort Bliss, Texas. Leveraging 3D printing for building army barracks will save money, time and labor and over time could also be used to establish military housing Americans around the world.

Image credit: Markforged

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