According to estimates provided by the Pentagon, 3D printing capabilities will be increasingly integrating into the U.S. Army, reported by Devon L. Suits, Army News Service earlier this month.
As 3D printing increases both in the field and at depots, the Army’s Center of Excellence for Additive and Advanced Manufacturing is slated to reach initial operating capability this year at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.
Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, G-4, outlined the Army’s current 3D printing capabilities at the 2019 Military Additive Manufacturing Summit and Technology Showcase Feb. 6, in Tampa, Florida.
At the summit, defense, academia, and industry officials were privy to the latest additive manufacturing technologies, event officials said. The Army will leverage these improved 3D printing capabilities to bolster equipment readiness and reduce logistics burdens, Piggee said.
The forum served as an opportunity to hear from military leaders and subject-matter experts on the future of additive manufacturing to support warfighter readiness and achieve operational effectiveness.
Back in December 2017, Army G-4 released an executive order allowing commanders in the field to invest up to $10,000 of their operating budgets in 3D printers, software, and training, Piggee said.
3D printing technology “enables our Soldiers to explore and implement creative solutions to problems we can only imagine, but they live with on a daily basis,” he said. “We wanted to give them flexibility and the power to innovate.”
In Korea, for example, Soldiers identified a fire-suppression cap degradation issue, impacting their fleet of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles known as MRAPs. These caps protect the fire extinguisher nozzles, housed in the MRAP’s wheel wells, and blow off when the fire extinguishing system activates.
“There are 20 caps per vehicle. Without them it makes the MRAPS non-mission capable,” Piggee said. “Soldiers put an order in October for replacements — estimated delivery: five months later.”
“Without the caps, Soldier safety would be an issue. We do not need to add any extra risk to Soldiers,” he added.
In turn, Soldiers in Korea turned to 3D printing technology and requested engineering support from the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey.
The team in Korea went on to produce 284 fire-suppression caps, which are currently in use until replacements arrive, the general said.
“We fixed a readiness problem with our MRAPs. It was only a small cap that was the issue, and we 3D printed a fix for it. Just 1,472 non-mission-capable days saved — for about $2.50 per part — and some creative thinking.”
While the Army has seen success through its additive manufacturing processes, there are several key challenges the military must face before moving forward, Piggee said.
For example, intellectual property rights could restrict the Army’s authority to reverse engineer a part, or produce a component locally, he said.
“Almost everything we use in the field is designed by contractors, using federal dollars,” Piggee said. “This is more legal, than technical. IP is an important issue as we modernize, and we will work with industry to find solutions.”
The additive manufacturing community employs a digital library of 3-D printed parts, called the “Repository for Additive Parts for Tactical and Operational Readiness,” or RAPTOR. As Soldiers or engineers produce parts, they put the blueprint in the system.
“The repository now has more than 140 certified parts, and it is growing,” Piggee said.
“We don’t want adversaries to get into our files and download our spare parts. Or to make counterfeit parts that … are engineered to fail,” he added. “And we do not want internal flaws in the printing that could degrade our weapon systems.”
Aside from their cybersecurity concerns, the Army needs to find a way to certify and standardize all 3D printed parts and materials, to meet a product’s predetermined safety standards.
“This takes a lot of labor, and there is a price tag on that, but this is crucial for Soldier safety,” Piggee said.
In spite of all the challenges, combining innovative thinking with today’s technology will help the Army evolve and prepare the force for combat against a near-peer threat, he said.
“Logistics will be contested in every domain. We need every innovation to set a theater and sustain Soldiers in future missions — whether it is artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles dropping off supplies, or a 3-D printer at the point of need,” Piggee said.