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Innovation in Defence: Improving Operational Readiness with 3D Printing

In recent years, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM Technology), has come to the attention of armies all over the world. The U.S. set aside 13.2 billion of its 2018 military budget for this technology, highlighting how the possible benefits are increasingly being recognised. The technology has become more accessible, with smaller, lighter, and cheaper models of printers becoming available.

This could aid in improving operational readiness through the speed of procurement of missing equipment, particularly for difficult to access locations. It can simplify logistics; military units can transport the raw materials alone, rather than individual spare parts or weapons. Further, soldiers trained in 3D printing can produce customised parts for unique situations or individuals. In turn, this increases military innovation and efficiency, while reducing overall costs for production.

By providing 3D printers to various military bases, 3D printing can be seen as potentially ‘“revolutionising the industrial supply chain”’.

Source: (23 January 2018), Baker, Berenice.  “Made to measure: the next generation of military 3D printing”, Army Technology. [Accessed on 1st October 2018]

Germany has also delved into the possibilities this technology could offer. The German army is currently testing out this pilot project, taken on by the Bundeswehr Logistics Command and the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw). So far, it seems the introduction of this technology, in the military supply chain could ““reduce the waiting time for the spare part””.

In order to reduce waiting time even further, there is also a project aiming “to build up a digital spare part library.” Yet, difficulties arise when parts are too complex to manufacture with 3D printing alone. Certain objects are also protected by intellectual property laws and cannot be scanned and printed. This could lead to a transformation of the present form of military supply contracts. Rather than continuing to use traditional supply contracts, military and defence manufacturers could begin to sign “intellectual property agreements to provide the 3D printing pattern”.

The rise of this technology has caught the attention of the European Defence Agency (EDA).

In the Strategic Report on 3D printing, commissioned by the EDA, a general failure to explore the full potential of 3D printing was found, resulting in a tangible “technology gap”.

Source: (January 2018), Santos González, David & González Álvarez, Almudena, “AM Manufacturing Feasibility Study & Technology Demonstration EDA AM State of the Art & Strategic Report”, European Defence Agency. [[Accessed on 1st October 2018]

The analysis identified certain limitations and barriers: the need for training, standardisation, qualification, and certification; Intellectual Property Rights; and relevant regulatory frameworks surrounding, health, environment, and safety.

The report discusses how far such limitations and gaps can be overcome in order to extend the capability of 3D printing within defence. Significant technological improvements with regards to speed, part size capacity as well as evaluating how to reduce the costs both of operational and raw material acquisition. As with any new technology, EDA note that we should “expect to see improvements on the current ‘initial versions’ of AM technology and accumulated experience will allow for a more rational use.” The importance therefore is stressed on the mutual development of technologies in order to create an environment in which it makes economic sense to use and improve AM technology.

In its conclusions, emphasis is placed on how concentration should be placed on developing and improving products, and differentiating between small and medium to large manufacture of products. Actual field applications are also emphasised, as operational experience of the use of these products is still falling short. The report looks at the potential effect this novel technology will have on support and maintenance operations. One of these is how 3D printing could bring resources “closer to the end user, enabling manufacture at the point of use when the necessary technological means are provided.” For now, it seems this rapidly evolving technology, will continue to play a pivotal role, and may potentially result in a paradigm shift in the military industrial supply chain.

Authors: Maria Antonia Reis Teixeira da CostaJodie Hook  & Martin Šuba, on behalf of the Finabel Permanent Secretariat.

Photo Credits: Continuing Studies UVIC & Army Recognition