Viewpoint: The military is not yet fully utilizing additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing could very well become a critical part of the Department of Defense supply chain, but challenges come from decentralized approaches across services, a lack of standards, limited awareness and expertise among military personnel and leadership, and intellectual property issues enough, this could prevent the Pentagon from realizing its potential.
Additive manufacturing, commonly known as “3D printing,” is an emerging technology with game-changing potential that is already being implemented in the US military and commercial world. It enables manufacturing methods that go beyond conventional techniques to produce selected parts on demand – within the organic industrial base or at the tactical point of need – an ability to mitigate supply chain disruptions and transform the way the military identifies, designs, manufactures and delivers , could fundamentally change and maintains the material readiness.
The technology can address select readiness challenges posed by parts obsolescence, sole sourcing risks, long lead times and declining manufacturing sources and material shortages. The ultimate goal is to appropriately position, scale and operationalize advanced manufacturing capabilities across the multi-domain operations framework from strategic support to tactical support. This will enable preparedness and ensure superiority in competition and armed conflict. In short, this technology is a critical new capability to integrate into the defense supply chain, and it’s not just about printing a part, it’s about bringing a specific capability back into combat.
While each service makes significant strides in this area, relatively few parts have been qualified for deployment to date due to a variety of challenges that have little to do with the technology itself, most of which are universal to the services and Department of Defense agencies.
At a high level, there is a fundamental lack of consistency in the approaches taken within each service, with implications for both internal and inter-service work. With such decentralized approaches, not only can it be difficult to bridge the gap between the warfighter who needs the technology and the entities that can provide the technology, but there can also be – and has been – duplication of effort within one certain range come service and across the services.
Lengthy and often cumbersome qualification processes are also a significant obstacle. Currently, it can take a full year for a non-flight critical part to qualify for use. This lead time could be significantly reduced if universal standards were in place; However, these standards do not exist in the Department of Defense or in the business world.
While the qualification process for flooring systems looks very different, it can still present a hurdle due to time-consuming, inflexible requirements.
One of the key benefits of additive manufacturing is speed, but these qualification processes are so lengthy that the supply chain is often given time to self-correct, making a part available through traditional routes before it is qualified for first use.
No conversation about additive manufacturing is complete without talking about intellectual property and access to engineering data packages — especially those made up of 3D geometry.
Intellectual property rights can be a major barrier to additive manufacturing of permanent replacement parts—as opposed to temporary replacement parts that are used explicitly for battle damage assessment and repair purposes—particularly when an OEM owns the specifications or an item is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency will .
For these reasons, the services lack much of the technical data and rights needed to print the vast majority of parts needed to maintain operational readiness. While there are various approaches that focus on addressing these challenges for newly acquired material, this will remain a significant challenge for older and more durable systems.
Realizing the full potential of this technology is inseparable from improved education and awareness across the department at all levels, including executives, the workforce and those who are totally unaware of the space. Many entities within each service know very little about additive manufacturing successes and potential use cases, resulting in an inconsistent and unpredictable workload. Combined with a lack of formal training, personnel working in this field may struggle to maintain their skills and technical expertise.
While the work done is highly impactful at the level of each part, the gap between the expectations of many senior executives and today’s capabilities remains, making expectation management a critical factor in long-term success.
Finally, the services’ traditionally risk-averse culture slows progress. A culture shift may be needed to enable wider use of additive manufacturing, which could involve a fundamental shift in risk perception. Fear of using this technology stems from concern that an additively manufactured part might not achieve the original design intent of the traditionally manufactured part.
While understandable, this fear is unfounded and likely stems from a lack of knowledge across the DoD related to additive manufacturing, particularly around testing and qualification processes.
Despite all of these obstacles, technology continues to advance, and there are many brilliant minds out there working to address these obstacles, with the ultimate goal of decreasing the sustainability path while increasing preparedness. This technology has already proven transformative for the military and will only gain in importance in the years to come.
Samantha McBirney is an engineer with the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. and Professor of Policy Analysis at Pardee RAND Graduate School. Phillip Burton is the Director of Advanced Manufacturing for the US Army’s Armored Vehicle and Armored Command.
Subjects: Emerging Technologies