The products that come out of 3D printers can already be found in vastly different settings, ranging from hospital rooms to buried one hundred meters under the ground, or inside the world's largest particle detector. The US Department of Defense (DoD), for its part, is interested in bringing the technology into yet another setting: the battlefield.
Additive manufacturing company ExOne has been awarded a $1.6 million contract by the DoD to develop a fully operational, self-contained 3D printing "factory" that could be transported in a 12-meter-long shipping container. The technology could be easily deployed in the field via land, sea or air, to manufacture, at pace, the parts needed by military personnel carrying out an operation.
Whether intervening in a conflict zone or carrying out disaster relief, soldiers would be able to use the mobile factory to print broken or damaged parts in less than 48 hours, where traditional manufacturing methods typically requires four to six weeks. No tools would be necessary to build the parts, apart from the digital file for the finished product, as well as the material needed to print.
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This means that, instead of keeping racks of spare parts in storage, troops would only need to save a digital library of parts for 3D printing; when faced with a previously unseen technical issue, they could design a new digital file and print it as needed.
Aircraft ducting, replacement lens caps, advanced electronics or medical equipment: there are many examples of products that military personnel are likely to need urgently when in the field, and 3D printing those parts could significantly reduce downtime in a crisis.
ExOne, which spun out of MIT in the early 1990s, has an exclusive license to use a specific method for 3D printing called binder jetting. Instead of using a laser or nozzle to melt and weld material together, the company's printers inject a liquid binder on successive thin layers of powdered material to form the product. The concept is similar to traditional paper printing: the binder functions like the ink as it moves across the layers of powder, forming the final product.
More than 20 materials, including metal and ceramic, are compatible with the company's method. "Binder jet 3D printing is a critical manufacturing technology for military use because of its speed, flexibility of materials, and ease of use," said John Hartner, ExOne's CEO. "We're excited to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Defense and other partners to make our 3D printers more rugged for the military (…). Most importantly, we know that years from now, our technology will play an important role in filling critical needs quickly."
Although the technology is already tried and tested, more work needs to be done to fit ExOne's 3D printers into robust shipping containers that can be reliably flown, shipped, or driven around. The contract with the DoD will initially focus, therefore, on improving the ruggedness of the printers to make sure that they can withstand a wide range of operating conditions.
ExOne said that it is developing a special military edition of its 3D printers, with a new body style and features that will be up to military standards. The company is collaborating with materials engineering company Dynovas and engineering firm Applied Composites – San Diego, both of which have extended experience in developing defense systems.
Another key part of the project, according to ExOne, will consist of simplifying the use of the technology in the field with software and training. The goal is to ensure that the 3D printing factory can be used with minimal technical knowledge.
The DoD's interest in 3D printing is not new: efforts to use additive manufacturing can be traced back to 2012, when it emerged that the US military was developing backpack-sized 3D printers designed to print spare parts for soldiers in the battlefield. The same year, the DoD created a $30 million center dedicated to harnessing the potential of 3D printing for the military.
Many initiatives have followed since, including the opening of a center for advanced manufacturing in collaboration with the Army Research Laboratory, as well as the launch of the AMNOW program, which seeks to assist the US army in the deployment of additive manufacturing technologies.
Last month, a special office within the DoD that is dedicated to defense manufacturing technology released an additive manufacturing strategy, designed to establish a common vision for the use of 3D printing, which was described as a "game-changing technology" with the potential to create new products on-demand, while bolstering the lifespan of legacy systems.