The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made 3D printing history in 2014 when it successfully employed additively manufacturing (AM) hardware in space. Since then, NASA has upgraded the printers on board the International Space Station to increase their onsite manufacturing capabilities and decrease downtime of critical devices. In civilian industries, downtime caused by machine malfunctions, production line changes, or supply disruptions can be financially costly. For the Department of Defense (DoD) there can be another cost: human lives.
In a deployed Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) acting as a geographic combatant commander’s strategic reserve, downtime is unaffordable. The MEU’s capabilities and readiness to respond to situations across the range of military operations must be maintained. AM can give the MEU a competitive advantage by becoming the centerpiece for maintenance and the stockage of most nonmedical supply parts.
The Space Squeeze on Amphibious Ships
The MEU’s missions face the challenge of space limitations on the Navy’s two new America-class landing helicopter assault (LHA) ships. Both the USS America (LHA-6) and the USS Tripoli (LHA-7) are aviation variants with no well deck for ship-to-shore connectors, and for the entire class the MEU has had to allocate additional space to carry the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and MV-22 Osprey. Future America-class ships, beginning with the USS Bougainville (LHA-8), will be configured to feature a well deck, but their 16,011-square-foot vehicle stowage area, considerably smaller than the older Wasp-class LHD’s 28,645 square feet, may still be tight.1 Space strictures are felt most acutely by the MEU’s aviation combat element (ACE). In the future operating environment, contested air space will require greater use of ACE assets than in the more forgiving aviation threat environments of the past few decades, and more on-hand repair parts will be required.
The space crunch also creates issues with the supply chain. A deployed MEU has a long list of required on-hand parts, many of them directly affecting its ability to accomplish its missions. Without the correct repair parts on hand, important equipment will suffer downtime. Often, parts are not immediately available because they require repair in the continental United States at the depot-level echelon of maintenance. In last year’s Marine Aviation Plan, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General Steven Rudder describes subpar depot-level maintenance capabilities resulting in reduced readiness levels of aircraft.2 The needs of the deployed MEU create tension with the Marine Corps’ depot capacity, which cannot
service repairs quickly or cost effectively. Additive manufacturing can
alleviate much of that tension.
Industry leaders are leveraging topological technology to optimize characteristics such as strength, weight, size, and manufacturing cost.3 Use of topology software will result in more complex parts being integrated into equipment across the MEU, since only AM will be able to produce the new ergonomically designed parts. For example, Lockheed Martin, the main supplier of the F-35, reports that it is leveraging AM to produce parts, layer by layer, that could not be built previously.4
Current AM technologies offer solutions to enhance safety stock, minimize the reliance on depots, and reduce the cost of replacement parts. The Marine Corps will have to negotiate the use of computer-aided design (CAD) files as part of the contracting process with its industry suppliers. CAD files help relatively inexperienced maintenance personnel in forward locations manufacture parts with AM. The expertise needed to operate an AM printer is limited to setup, cleaning, and loading the proper raw materials, so MEU Marines will not need much training to accomplish those tasks.
Additive manufacturing has matured to a point where it can be implemented to reduce space and provide on-hand depot-level maintenance capabilities. Mass customization––the ability to produce a large catalog of parts or products with individualized or specialized features––is one of AM’s major benefits. It will increase flexibility in the MEU’s supply chain, alleviating the need for shipboard space for supplies and parts. When a repair part is needed, the maintenance section will print a new one on demand; the warfighter will not be limited by having to wait for parts not on board. Mass customization also will facilitate more complex repairs and alleviate some requirements for depot-level maintenance.
The AM Directed Energy Deposition (DED) printing application uses a powder or metal wire melted by a powerful laser to print melted metal onto existing structure. This technique is perfect for repairing damaged parts because the grain structure of the depositing metal wire or powder can be controlled to a great extent, allowing the fabrication of fine pieces.5 Repair of broken metal parts traditionally required complete replacement or repair in the depot. DED will provide that capability on board ship. The correct printer, material, and CAD files are all that is needed.
Are Quality Concerns Still Relevant?
As new technologies are integrated into existing practices, leaders in any organization are right to be skeptical about their potential value. Misgivings have focused on quality, complexity, and cost, but AM technology has matured in the past few years to a stage where those concerns have mostly been mitigated. In 2015, researchers from Lawrence Technological Institute concluded that parts produced through Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) showed mechanical properties very similar to those made through traditional manufacturing methods.6 Since 2015, AM technologies have been able to produce parts of similar or greater tensile strength to those produced by traditional methods such as casting.
The complexity of many parts also concerns leaders, but as noted above, the benefit of AM using CAD files is that maintainers do not need subject-matter expertise. If the Marine working the printer has the CAD file, any part can be produced. If not, he or she can “3D scan-to-CAD,” to create a CAD file from an already existing part without specialized training on CAD drawing.7
Another concern often expressed about AM is that with the technology doing most of the work, the cost of implementation will outweigh the benefit gained. However, AM technology has matured to the point where many companies are receiving full return on investment within 12 months. For example, a recent report on the implementation of 3D printing in Volkswagen Autoeuropa’s assembly line process stated that 100 percent return on investment was accomplished within two months.8 Even with AM technologies improving rapidly, each new MEU could buy the latest 3D printers and still achieve a net savings through implementation. Implementing AM in the MEU will provide easily manufactured, cost-effective, high-quality parts when they are needed most.
The integration of AM will reduce deployed MEU maintenance and supply issues. Senior leaders’ concerns about AM already have been alleviated by how far the technology has matured in the past few years. Early AM adopters already have achieved a competitive advantage, and producing complex parts on demand undoubtedly will reduce downtime across the MEU. Downtime in the manufacturing industry costs money. In the military it costs lives.
1. Tyler Rogoway, “The Next America-Class Amphibious Assault Ship Will Almost Be In a Class of Its Own,” The Drive, 17 April 2018, www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/20201/the-next-america-class-amphibious-assault-ship-will-almost-be-in-a-class-of-its-own.
2. LGen Steven Rudder, USMC, “2018 Marine Aviation Plan,” www.aviation.marines.mil/Portals/11/2018%20AvPlan%20FINAL.pdf.
3. ANSYS, “ANSYS Topology Optimization Upgrades Designs to Take Full Advantage of 3D Printing–Application Brief,” www.ansys.com/resource-library/application-brief/ansys-topology-optimization-upgrades-designs-to-take-full-advantage-of-3-d-printing.
4. Lockheed Martin, “Advanced Manufacturing,” www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/capabilities/advanced-manufacturing.html.
5. A. Nikhil, “3D Printing Processes—Directed Energy Deposition (Part 6/8),” Engineers Garage, 10 January 2017, www.engineersgarage.com/articles/3d-printing-processes-directed-energy-deposition.
6. Kevin Mozurkewich and E. G. Meyer, “New Research Advancing Additive Manufacturing Viability,” Additive Manufacturing Magazine, 9 December 2015, www.additivemanufacturing.media/articles/new-research-advancing-additive-manufacturing-viability.
7. Rick Weber, “Technology—3D CAD, 3D Scanning, 3D Printing—Is Reducing Costs, Saving Time, Eliminating Waste, and Speeding Up Production,” Trailer / Body Builders, 5 May 2017, https://0-search-proquest-com.libus.csd.mu.edu/abicomplete/docview/1895942895/4E628332C5974171PQ/5?accountid=100.
8. Jessica Van Zeijderveld, “Valuable for the Automotive Industry: 3D Printed Car Parts,” Sculpeto, 16 May 2018, www.sculpteo.com/blog/2018/05/16/valuable-for-the-automotive-industry-3d-printed-car-parts/.