Military experts: 3D printing going to be big, but challenges loom

Like the Internet of Things, another emerging technology that is becoming increasingly disruptive in the government space today is additive manufacturing, known simply by many as 3D printing.

Speaking at a Deloitte forum on Monday—The 3D Opportunity: Additive Manufacturing in Defense Forum—military experts discussed the range of possibilities that additive manufacturing, or AM, could bring as well as some of the challenges it faces.

One instance where AM is important is in the operation of weapons systems that will almost assuredly be used long after they were intended, said Col. Patrick Kumashiro, chief, maintenance division, Air Force. “It provides us that flexibility based on parts obsolescence and diminishing suppliers over time,” he said.

AM will be crucial to  supply chain and maintenance and, more specifically, parts manufacturing, said Greg Kilchenstein, director of enterprise maintenance technology for maintenance policy and programs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Of the $75 billion annual budget for Defense Department maintenance, half of it goes to parts. “It’s about the right part, the right place, the right time and the right material condition,” he said. “AM opens up that door.”

Twenty years from now, Kilchenstein said, the military will be using 75 percent to 80 percent of the same weapons systems that are being operated today, and they will require the rapid engineering that AM is capable of to remain operational.

But to imagine AM 20 years from now is to imagine a very different world from today—one that is much more connected than today, said Capt. Frank Futcher, director, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Technologies like the Internet of Things will impact AM’s utility in the future.

“We’re just starting to build a database of what capabilities we have out there, and we’re only now starting to talk about how we’re going to share data between those entities and be able to connect them together into a joint manufacturing grid,” Futcher said.

One example he offered was of a ship that needed a certain part. The ship, being connected to a military network, could send the information that it needs a certain part, and that part would be printed and delivered to the ship.

“Maybe it’ll be printed in a place like Bahrain or Japan. Maybe it’ll be flown out to the ship, maybe it’ll be flown out by a drone,” he said, emphasizing that the technologies of today will play into the future of AM.

A good way to think about how AM will be utilized in the future, beyond supply chain and maintenance, is thinking about what needs the country will have in 20 years, said Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, additive manufacturing lead, Marine Corps Reserve/Installations and Logistics.

Twenty years from now, AM could be about being able to “print your own parts to printing your own UAVs for ISR or weaponization—on-site, custom-made, with sensors to do that exact mission that you need at that exact moment,” Marotto said.

But AM should be about even more than 3D printing in the future, he added. “In 20 years, we should be thinking about 4D printing. I want to be able to print things that walk off the machine.”

Marotto is a proponent of getting out there and using this technology right here and now, but one of the issues holding that back, he said, is culture.

Others echoed his sentiment, listing a lack of resources, static processes, and a lack of leadership as being key challenges in the AM space. Much like the cloud and other technologies before it, it is taking the government time to incorporate this emerging technology into every day thinking and application, the speakers said.

“We don’t need to wait to do 3D printing. We want to get the machines out in the hands of the operators right now,” Marotto said, because enemies like ISIS and other countries are not waiting, he added. “This technology isn’t that expensive on the low end. Anyone can afford to buy some weed whacker plastic, put it through an extruding 3D printer and make something.”

“Let’s start doing it right now and see what we come up with,” he added.

Futcher agreed that the military should be going out and utilizing AM right now, especially before the government starts drawing up policy about it.  “When the technology is available and the processes and materials are in place, then we can say something in policy as far as how we use this,” he said.


About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at mhoover@washingtontechnology.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

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