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Daily RC Article 165

Revolutionizing Logistics: 3D Printing in the Military


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The world’s armed forces have adopted three-dimensional printing on demand on the front line. The military believes in the maxim “Amateurs talk strategy, but professionals talk logistics”. Moving replacement parts through a long supply chain to a far-flung ship or base can take weeks and keeping a full range of spares near the front line is unrealistic. Far better to produce what is needed, when it is needed. Making what is needed to order has huge potential.

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The USS Harry S. Truman, an American aircraft-carrier, took two 3D printers on her most recent tour. During the eight months she was at sea, her crew devised and printed…a cleverly shaped widget they dubbed the TruClip. This snaps onto walkie-talkies, reinforcing a connection that is otherwise prone to break in the rough-and-tumble of naval usage. TruClips alone have saved more than $40,000 in replacement parts…

At the moment, only plastic items can be printed at sea. Landlubbing printers can make things out of metal by building up layers of metallic powder that are then melted with a laser or electron beam and allowed to cool into a solid. But printers, like people, get seasick. A ship’s constant yawing, pitching and rolling disturbs the powder before the beam can do its work…

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In time, however, metal parts may also be printed at sea. The American navy is looking for ways to overcome the problem of instability. Nor are sailors the only servicemen who will benefit from 3D printing. China’s army prints both basic items, such as ratchets, and more sophisticated ones, including raised physical relief maps of local terrain that help soldiers plan operations more effectively than a paper map or screen display could…

The American navy will soon be supervising the distribution of 3D printers to American marines in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific…And the army, too, is involved. It has already sent some 3D printers to bases in Afghanistan.

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For now, like those on-board ship, “forward deployed” printers of this sort make items out of plastic only. In their case the problem with printing in metal is not constant movement but grit – for this is a much more sensitive process than printing in plastic. Even that limitation will be overcome. The United States’ Army Research Laboratory is paying two firms to develop technologies which can turn blocks of metal into printable powder within the confines of a shipping container. The purpose of this is to recycle battlefield scrap into new equipment.

At the moment this “atomisation” process works like an old-fashioned shot tower. Molten metal poured in at the top of a chamber breaks into droplets that cool and solidify on their way down. But this requires a chamber at least six metres high, which is too tall to fit upright inside a standard shipping container. MolyWorks Materials of Los Gatos, California, has managed to shrink the process so that it does fit inside such a container. It does so by orienting the chamber diagonally, and employing jets of inert gas to stop the droplets touching the sides before they have cooled. If printers that make use of these solidified droplets can also be made rugged enough to withstand the battlefield, then broken parts themselves will become recyclable, supply chains may no longer need to deliver even raw materials. More thought can then be given to the little matter of strategy.

Armed forces globally are embracing on-demand 3D printing on the front lines, recognizing its potential in overcoming logistical challenges. The USS Harry S. Truman employed 3D printers at sea, producing essential items like the cost-saving TruClip. While current capabilities are limited to plastic items due to printer sensitivity to ship movement, efforts are underway to print metal parts at sea. China's military is also utilizing 3D printing for both basic and sophisticated items. The U.S. military is distributing 3D printers to marines globally, exploring technology to recycle battlefield scrap into new equipment, marking a transformative shift in military logistics.
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