Aerospace and defence manufacturing could potentially move away from mass-produced cookie cutter technologies towards precise, on-demand customization with the advent of technology known as additive manufacturing or 3D printing. The technology builds a three-dimensional object one layer at a time from a digital file out of a variety of materials such as steel, aluminium, titanium, and plastic.

3-D printing may provide a quick solution for looming deadlines and complex prototype building minus the expense of tooling and the time it takes to build and test a conventional prototype hence accelerating advancements and swiftly incorporating new weaponry into the field. Put simply, 3-D printing allows for remote, on-demand production with no scrap left behind. But will it remain a research and development tool or does the future see all weapons eventually produced this way with soldiers printing and customizing their weapons in the field or printing much-needed critical parts.

Advances in 3D printing saw in October last year, the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Centre (ARDEC) successfully fire the first 3D printed grenade out of a 3D printed grenade launcher. Following six months of collaborative effort, RAMBO (Rapid Additively Manufactured Ballistic Ordnance) the name of the printed grenade launcher was (apart from springs and fasteners) produced using 3D printing processes. Precision lasers were used to create the barrel and receiver by heating aluminium powder particles below their melting point and welding the fine metal powder layer by layer until the finished product was formed. Components like the trigger and firing pin were printed in 4340 alloy steel, the same material used in traditionally produced parts.

There are a number of private companies working to develop applications for aerospace and defence as well as defence agencies taking the time to investigate 3D printing and what it may mean for the defence industry. French company Be Additive Manufacturing (BeAM), a specialist in 3D powder coating, recently expanded its operations across borders by opening an office in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. Leading European 3D printing companies are entering the American market to access the continent.

In December 2016, the European Defence Agency launched a 3D printing defence-related project to assess where 3D printing can have a positive impact on defence capabilities and identifying research and technology manufacturing capabilities in Europe. The results of the project will be presented at an exhibition to military officials with equipment and demonstrations to raise awareness on the impact that 3D printing may have on defence.

3D printing is able to produce complex structures, which are impossible to build using traditional manufacturing processes providing designers the freedom to create parts that are efficient, reduce weight in moving objects, and reduce carbon footprint. The only issue for mass defence production is speed, but like all technologies time may indeed provide a solution. For now, 3D printing is beneficial for prototype building and may be advantageous to specialist military and law enforcement units such as special forces who can benefit from on-demand weapon customization and remote part printing.


Written by Sylvia Caravotas (Satovarac Consulting) for OIDA



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