Strategic benefits of using 3D printingin military fields

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The largest armies in the world have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development in the field of 3D printing‭, ‬in order to enhance the use of this technology in military manufacturing operations‭, ‬and to make use of the many advantages that this new technology provides to armies‭.‬

3D printing is an additive manufacturing technique‭, ‬in which a physical object is created by depositing thin layers of materials‭, ‬such as metal alloys‭, ‬or types of plastics and polymers‭, ‬on top of each other‭, ‬based on a numerical description of the product‭ ‬design‭. ‬This technology differs from traditional removal manufacturing‭, ‬which creates products by removing materials through drilling‭, ‬or turning‭, ‬from a solid material‭.‬

The history of 3D printing technology dates back to the early eighties of the twentieth century‭, ‬and developed slowly until ten‭ ‬years ago‭, ‬as it was subject to the intellectual property laws of 3D Systems and its founder‭, ‬Chuck Hill‭, ‬who invented this technology‭.‬

With the lifting of the ban‭, ‬technology began to witness rapid development‭, ‬especially with regard to the development of printing machines at a lower cost‭. ‬In the past five years only‭, ‬the cost of printers has changed‭. ‬After the price of the printer exceeded 50‭ ‬thousand US dollars‭, ‬its price is now only 1800‭ ‬dollars‭. ‬Get it for under‭ $‬500‭.‬

There has also been an expansion in the areas of their use‭, ‬such as medicine‭, ‬alternative prosthetic devices‭, ‬simulating ancient‭ ‬statues‭, ‬consumer and household products‭, ‬and even the construction of walls of houses and ships‭, ‬as well as some military uses‭.‬

3D military manufacturing

This technology has begun to be used in military manufacturing‭, ‬but to a limited extent so far‭. ‬3D printers are used in the production of fighter engines‭, ‬as well as spare parts for some weapons‭, ‬such as tanks and submarines‭. ‬Many countries of the world‭, ‬especially the armies of major countries‭, ‬are aware of the benefits of 3D manufacturing‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬they tended to develop national strategies to coordinate efforts to benefit from this new technology‭.‬

The U.S‭. ‬military began expanding the use of 3D printing‭, ‬and the DoD’s Joint Defense Manufacturing Council intervened earlier in 2021‭ ‬to coordinate it all under a unified strategy to employ additive manufacturing to enhance military readiness‭, ‬reduce costs‭, ‬shorten supply chains‭, ‬and accelerate innovation‭. ‬The Pentagon’s first additive manufacturing strategy calls for the integration of 3D printing into the defense industrial base and its employment‭ ‬in all branches of the armed forces‭.‬

The US military is currently reviewing parts of weapon systems to see which parts can be remanufactured using 3D printing‭, ‬especially those found in older systems‭, ‬such as the B-52‭ ‬strategic bomber‭. ‬The benefits of 3D manufacturing can be explained as follows‭:‬

1‭ ‬Reduce costs and increase performance‭: ‬The US Army wants to 3D-print one-piece combat vehicle hulls‭. ‬The US military contracted with the non-profit ASTRO America for research and development in April 2021‭ ‬to oversee the development of the world’s largest‭ ‬3D metal printer to manufacture one-piece structures‭, ‬which in the end will cost less‭, ‬weigh less‭, ‬and will be faster in production‭, ‬and most importantly‭, ‬it will be more resilient to various shocks and attacks‭, ‬especially as better designs are developed‭ ‬for it‭.‬

One-piece combat vehicles are nothing new‭, ‬as they have been produced in the past and have proven to be extremely durable even at a reduced weight‭. ‬The challenge was to expand its production at the time‭, ‬which was related to the fact that its production using traditional methods of manufacturing was very expensive‭, ‬and it was difficult to produce it on a large scale‭.‬

With the advent of additive manufacturing‭, ‬and the launch of the US Army’s‭ “‬Jointless hull‭” ‬program‭, ‬the problem of large-scale‭ ‬production of US combat vehicles can be solved in the near future‭. ‬The success of the 3D manufacturing system in the production‭ ‬of one-piece vehicles will increase the vehicles‭’ ‬ability to withstand the damage of impacts even with reduced weight and cost‭.‬

2‭ ‬Saving time‭: ‬A 3D printer can be used to construct entire buildings with quick-drying concrete in just 36‭ ‬hours‭. ‬The US Marines used a 3D printer from the manufacturer Icon to build a reinforced concrete structure‭, ‬wide enough to conceal a truck-mounted‭ ‬multiple missile‭- ‬launching system‭.‬

Similarly‭, ‬it took the US Air Force about 16‭ ‬weeks to produce a spare part for the F-16‭ ‬fighter‭, ‬but using the additive printing‭ ‬technology‭, ‬the required part was produced in just two weeks‭. ‬It also usually takes about 5‭ ‬months to build a small submarine‭. ‬Now‭, ‬thanks to 3D printing‭, ‬it can be built in just 4‭ ‬weeks‭. ‬On July 24‭, ‬2020‭, ‬the US Navy unveiled the first 3D-printed submarine hull for the US Army‭.‬

3‭ ‬The production of old spare parts‭: ‬The 3D printer can be used to produce spare parts for old vehicles and aircraft‭, ‬which have‭ ‬been discontinued by the manufacturer‭. ‬In order to produce these spare parts‭, ‬large sums of money‭, ‬which may reach thousands of‭ ‬dollars‭, ‬are required‭. ‬And with a 3D printer‭, ‬the cost of producing it is falling dramatically‭.‬

An example of this is the US Army’s printing of spare parts for the 41-year-old Black Hawk helicopter‭, ‬and the B-2‭ ‬Spirit bomber‭, ‬as the US Department of Defense intends to keep these machines in service for‭, ‬at least‭, ‬another decad‭, ‬so it switched to 3D printing to manufacture parts‭. ‬The same method is also being used with the American B-52‭ ‬bomber‭.‬

4‭ ‬Production of Unique Components‭: ‬Industry experts agree that 3D printing has changed the limitations that were imposed on innovative designs‭, ‬as the potential of new designs generated by 3D printers is much higher than that of traditional manufacturing‭. ‬This is because metal printing enables the creation of shapes that traditional metal fabrication processes cannot match‭. ‬Even existing parts that require the joining of disparate parts can be made as a single piece using 3D printing‭.‬

The latest 3D printing technology enables the innovative production of components for a wide range of military equipment that cannot be manufactured by using traditional manufacturing methods‭. ‬An example of this is General Dynamics‭’ ‬fuel nozzle‭, ‬where the‭ ‬company created a one-piece printed fuel nozzle‭, ‬eliminating all internal welds that were causing problems such as fuel leaks‭. ‬The result was the production of a complex fuel nozzle‭, ‬which no conventional manufacturing method can produce‭.‬

5‭ ‬Manufacturing sustainable components‭:‬‭ ‬The US Air Force has 3D-printed a new piece of titanium for the F-22‭ ‬Raptor stealth fighter‭, ‬and the Pentagon hopes that this is just the beginning‭, ‬and that the production of additional equipment will be expanded in the same way‭.‬

It is noted that the new printed component is a fairly small part‭, ‬used in the cockpit‭, ‬was originally made of aluminum‭, ‬and is‭ ‬often replaced in 80%‭ ‬of cases during maintenance‭. ‬Unlike the aluminum part‭, ‬the titanium imprinted part won’t corrode and can last through the remaining operational life of the stealth fighter‭, ‬which offers a huge advantage‭. ‬The US military plans‭, ‬in the‭ ‬event of the completion of tests of the new piece‭, ‬that the production of other equipment from the stealth fighter will be expanded using the same method‭.‬

6‭ ‬Enhancing local manufacturing‭:‬‭ ‬The United States relied on purchasing personal protective equipment from China‭, ‬which dominated the process of exporting it globally‭, ‬but with the spread of 3D printing technology in the defense industry‭, ‬this matter may contribute to the re-production and manufacture of many military components in the United States again‭, ‬which was previously considered too expensive to produce‭,‬‭ ‬thanks to 3D printers‭.‬

7‭ ‬The speed of response to any sudden developments‭:‬‭ ‬“Additional manufacturing”‭ ‬can contribute to the rapid production of any equipment or spare parts‭, ‬especially if the production line has been subjected to‭ ‬a sudden stop due to any unexpected developments‭, ‬such as the exposure of the producing factory to an attack‭, ‬or the suspension‭ ‬of importing this component from abroad for any reason‭.‬

Additive Printing deficiencies‭:‬

Despite the previous benefits that armies can achieve from employing 3D printing in manufacturing‭, ‬they still suffer from major‭ ‬shortcomings‭, ‬and they also increase the threats facing countries‭. ‬These shortcomings and threats can be detailed in the following points‭:‬

1‭ ‬The difficulty of producing some military components‭: ‬It is noted that some printed materials manufactured by using 3D printers sometimes do not fit the heat levels required for Ministry of Defense applications‭, ‬so they cannot be used in all military manufacturing processes‭, ‬and therefore there is still a need to wait for technological development in 3D printers‭, ‬which allow the production of components that withstand high levels of heat‭.‬

2‭ ‬Cyber intrusion‭:‬‭ ‬The 3D printing process needs printers connected to an Internet‭- ‬connected network‭, ‬or even an internal network‭, ‬which exposes‭ ‬it to electronic(cyber‭) ‬threats‭. ‬It is possible that these networks will be compromised by cyber-attacks that are difficult to detect‭, ‬which can affect the process of designing the 3D parts‭, ‬so it is necessary that we secure such networks and avoid any security vulnerabilities‭.‬

This penetration may result in changing some designs‭, ‬albeit to a limited extent‭, ‬which will result in the production of military equipment such as planes or tanks‭, ‬that suffer from shortcomings‭, ‬or defects‭, ‬which may result in their physical destruction‭, ‬not to mention the possibility that the produced military designs‭  ‬could be stolen‭.‬

3‭ ‬Managing Complex Designs‭: ‬DARPA’s TRADES Transformational Design program aims to develop the math and computational tools needed to create and manage the‭ ‬complex design needed by 3D printers‭. ‬It is expected that TRADEZ’s ultimate technologies will allow designers to more easily navigate the design space to discover innovative‭, ‬complex yet achievable designs that take full advantage of new materials and advanced manufacturing methods‭, ‬ultimately offering a way forward for future design systems and processes‭.‬

4‭ ‬Threat of terrorist groups‭: ‬Terrorists may steal designs for the production of some weapons‭, ‬produce them through 3D printers‭, ‬and use them to carry out terrorist operations‭. ‬For example‭, ‬there are fears that terrorists will steal designs to produce suicide drones and use them to threaten human life and attack critical infrastructure‭, ‬in a worst-case scenario‭.‬

Although there have been concerns about 3D-printing handguns‭, ‬especially after tens of thousands of people have downloaded files‭ ‬of parts designs for various rifles and pistols‭. ‬Researchers at the American RAND Corporation concluded that it is unlikely that printed weapons would pose a new threat‭, ‬as pistols produced in this manner suffer from some shortcomings in their design‭, ‬which makes their performance unreliable‭. ‬On the other hand‭, ‬it is not difficult or costly for a person to purchase a professional‭ ‬rifle‭, ‬illegally‭.‬

In conclusion‭, ‬it can be said that‭ “‬additive manufacturing‭” ‬is one of the developments in military manufacturing‭. ‬Despite the aforementioned challenges‭, ‬it is expected that technological development will lead to overcoming them‭, ‬in a way that increases military industry dependence on this technology in the future‭, ‬especially with the benefits it offers‭.‬

By Dr‭. ‬Shadi Mohamed

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