Skip to content

Large-Scale 3D Printing — The Next Big Thing for Defense Manufacturing

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is often framed as an emerging technology, especially within defense manufacturing. In reality, military use cases of additive technology date back to the late 1980s. 

However, early uses of terminology — coupled with a lack of understanding of the technology — contributed to its relatively slow acceptance rate.

Today, every branch of the U.S. military has AM represented in its research and application portfolio. The case studies are diverse. Air Force officials in Virginia made headlines last year when they printed a piece in just a few hours that was needed to operate their refueling equipment after nine months of supply chain stagnation. Meanwhile, the Navy's installation of 3D printers aboard their ships will allow crews to fabricate parts on demand.

From building customizable equipment to accelerating repairs, AM is transforming how the military develops and maintains its equipment — and contemporary applications are the tip of the iceberg. What's next for the defense sector?

De-Risking the Supply Chain

Until 2016, AM was primarily a laboratory activity within the military branches. But as they worked to integrate additive technology into their manufacturing systems, AM began to support traditional manufacturing methods — for instance, by producing tooling fixtures.

Thanks to investments in technology and materials research, the process has become faster, cheaper and more reliable over time. Now, 3D printing is poised to disrupt the industrial base. In doing so, it could address a pervasive challenge: supply chain resilience.

COVID-19 highlighted and exacerbated long-standing vulnerabilities in the global supply chain network. These were particularly notable among suppliers who fulfill low volume high mix (LVHM) part orders — those comprising a variety of products in small quantities.

This impacted many sectors, including automotive, aerospace and defense. Supply chain disruptions are bad news in any field. They create shortages of goods and parts, leading to price inflation and factory closures. And within defense, these shortages can quickly escalate to a matter of national security.

Fortunately, a solution is at hand. Data shows that additive technology could reduce part lead times and material costs by as much as 90% and cut energy use in half. Deployed at scale, AM offers increased agility, capacity and supply chain readiness.

Accelerating Implementation 

To tap into this potential, the U.S. government announced AM Forward in May 2022. Through this voluntary program, major manufacturers will direct resources toward helping small and mid-size companies nurture new additive capabilities. Each participating company agrees to source a certain percentage of additively produced parts from within the U.S., among other commitments. By enhancing the AM capabilities of domestic suppliers, the initiative will strengthen localized manufacturing, diminishing reliance on imports.

The program, supported by the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America (ASTRO America), is designed to encourage U.S. suppliers to overcome some of the common hurdles to adoption. These include a lack of resources, funding and education.

Through partnerships with corporations and federal resources, AM Forward will also enable the development and dissemination of industry-wide standards for the consistent use of materials and technology in AM.

Reducing Vulnerabilities 

Interruptions to the supply chain are just one of the problems that AM has the capacity to solve. Since the Vietnam War, it is estimated that approximately 73% of all vehicle losses were due to underbody blasts. These casualties stem from weaknesses in vehicle underbodies caused by joints.

The Jointless Hull Project — managed by ASTRO America — aims to overcome this. Using the world's largest metal 3D printer, the project will produce single, jointless combat vehicle hulls. By circumventing what has traditionally been the weak point in vehicle underbodies, jointless hulls will improve vehicle performance and could ultimately increase survivability. In addition to making new hull designs, the jointless hull machines could also be used to manufacture or repair other large metal components. 

This initiative will be the focus of a thought leadership panel at this year's RAPID + TCT. The panel will bring together speakers from the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense (DoD) and leading industrial experts. Participants will discuss how large-scale metal and hybrid manufacturing can augment supply chain readiness and pave the way for smarter, stronger products.

The panel will introduce attendees to the metal hybrid manufacturing systems produced for the Jointless Hull Project — one of which has a build volume of almost 30 ft x 20 ft x 12 ft. It will also explore the process of bringing together industry, academia and government, an example of the collaboration vital to achieving broad implementation.

A Resilient Future 

While metal AM is growing rapidly, other materials demonstrate significant potential. Through the Additive Construction (AC) program, engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) have produced machines capable of printing full-scale concrete buildings.

Yet, as the field makes huge leaps forward, our biggest challenge remains a lack of understanding. We have the data to prove that AM technologies can increase productivity, reduce cost and make our systems more effective. To realize this, we as an industry must double down on educational efforts to accelerate acceptance. Programs like AM Forward, which lay the groundwork for widespread deployment, are a promising start.

By helping suppliers bridge the adoption gap, we can optimize both the product and the supply chain it depends on. In this way, we'll chart a course for fast, flexible and responsive manufacturing.

Mr. Larry (LJ) R. Holmes Jr. is the Executive Director of Research and Engineering at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, where he leads the development and operation of an Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute. He also serves as the Director of Government Relations at nScrypt in Orlando, Florida and the Chief of Manufacturing at the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America (ASTRO America). Mr. Holmes left federal service in 2018 after 15 years at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL). 

Mr. Holmes will moderate the thought leadership panel A Disruption of the Industrial Base; Large-Scale Metal Additive Manufacturing at RAPID + TCT 2023.