Additive Manufacturing Applications in the Defense Industry
Updated: Mar 21
With the demand for modern technologies to reduce production costs, and open innovative design and engineering options, Additive Manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize the Defense and Military industries.
3D Printing delivers various benefits to cutting-edge industries, such as Aerospace, Machinery, and Automotive, as we previously covered in our blog. The industry that we'd like to focus on today is the Defense industry, which can benefit from the characteristics of additive manufacturing technology, both domestically and internationally.
Recent sources project the worldwide aerospace & defense industry to be spending ~$6 Billion on 3D Printing by the year 2027. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given the adoption of this versatile technology for a variety of applications and use cases. There’s consistent demand projected with the growth of 3D Printing in the defense sector. According to a study by Defense Intelligence, a staggering 75% of business executives anticipate that additive manufacturing will become commonplace in that sector over the next 10 years.
Which Additive Manufacturing applications can be found in the Defense Industry?
What is the main use of 3D printing for the Military and other Defense sectors?
What used to be plastic/polymer parts for prototype and R&D has scaled into full-blown production, replacements for traditional manufacturing, and cutting-edge technology that’s positively changing the entire design and product development process. Whether it’s tier 1, 2 or 3 Defense manufacturing companies, Marine/Army/Air Force design teams, and everything in between, Additive Manufacturing has become a prevalent force for Defense and Military applications.
Below we’ll look at just some of the ways 3D Printing is impacting Military & Defense:
MRO (Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul)
In high-stakes environments, such as the battlefield, moving quickly is of the utmost importance to remain competitive. When time is of the essence, it’s often inefficient, time consuming, and wasteful to utilize technologies such as CNC Machining.
Metal 3D Printing is positioned well thanks to its just-in-time factor, along with producing consistent metal parts rivaled (or superior) to that of traditional manufacturing technologies.
Spare Parts, Replacements for Obsolete Components
In the harsh environments of outer space, combat zones, and others, having 3D Printing in the arsenal of manufacturing is crucial. Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) is also top of mind for Aerospace 3D designers, in conjunction with DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing).
Aviation companies like GE (General Electric) have been able to take advantage of CAD Software, FEA Mechanical/Strucutal Analysis Tools, and Metal 3D Printers to entirely re-imagine simple brackets with complex, organic geometries like the picture.
Having on-demand additive manufacturing capabilities for spare parts thanks entirely to additive manufacturing is another clear-cut application for the defense sector. With a variety of aircrafts, vehicles and systems being manufactured in short order, it’s often difficult or impossible to come by OEM parts for when something breaks.
Whether it’s manufacturing the end-use component directly from a 3D Printer, or producing tooling for a given part, Additive Manufacturing is proving itself to be a vital innovation for New Product Innovation (NPI) as well as maintaining an existing fleet.
Aircraft Fixtures, Dies & Tooling
Innovators in the aerospace industry are quickly finding success in the use of additive manufacturing for a variety of tooling, mold, and die applications. What was once previously CNC Machined, can now be 3D Printed to serve industry players such as the US Military, Defense contractors, and organizations in need of precise analysis for their additive manufacturing workflows.
3D Printed Rockets, Advanced Composites, and more
In more recent years of VC-funded startups in the US, many build their entire business model around the flexibility and agile method of 3D Printing rockets, rocket components, and many other components that go on or inside launch vehicles and payloads.
There are in fact a number of companies that solely use additive manufacturing and nothing else to manufacture natural liquid gas rockets, such as Relativity Space in California.
All of the major commercial aviation giants (ie. Boeing, Airbus, etc.) are huge adopters of Additive as well for engine components, interior plane parts, and everything in between.
Advanced Technological Research & Development
Aside from the Supply Chain shortening and efficiency increases that additive manufacturing commands, the planned US military budget for this year includes roughly $13.2 billion for technology research. One obvious sign of the growing interest in 3D printing's possibilities for defense applications is its increased support for additive manufacturing. Technology partnerships, such as the CASTOR <> Stanley Black and Decker <> EOS, are fundamental for the integration of Metal 3D Printing in the Digital Manufacturing ecosystem.
UAV Sub-assemblies, Satellites, Drones & more
The range of additive manufacturing applications for various military vehicles, aircrafts, and projects spans in many ways. Whether it’s prototyping/tooling for an aerospace component, or providing unique solutions for combat readiness (see image below), additive manufacturing has found its way into every part of the product development process.
3D Printing Applications Across All Branches of US Military
One of the most significant benefits of AM is the ability to produce complex geometries that are difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. Combined with increased design flexibility, additive manufacturing is often a much more sustainable practice for virtually all areas/branches of the military.
For example, the US Army has been using AM to create lightweight brackets and mounts for handheld launch components to help more evenly distribute weights and loads. This same project also led to a lighter weight part with comparable rigidity and flexion compared to its previously injection-molded counterpart.
3D Printing Barracks is another application the DoD has begun testing using large cement 3D Printers.
The US Navy has also been using AM to produce complex components for submarines, which are often difficult to access and repair. This technology has allowed the Navy to produce parts on demand, reducing the need to stockpile spare parts and improving the overall readiness of the fleet.
Limitations and Challenges of 3D Printing in the Defense & Military Sector
Despite the many benefits of AM in the military sector, there are still some limitations and challenges that must be addressed.
Material selection: The additive manufacturing materials used must be suitable for the equipment’s intended application. This can be particularly difficult in the defense sector because materials must adhere to strict standards for strength, toughness, and resistance to harsh environments, in addition to higher heat resistance.
<< Here is an example of just some of the polymer 3D Printed parts that undergo FAA Certification for commercial aircrafts
Quality Control: As additive manufacturing creates components layer by layer; it might be challenging to find flaws. For safety and dependability in the defense sector, it is essential to make sure that parts fulfill the necessary quality & ruggedization (ie. Mil-Spec) standards.
Cybersecurity Threats: Additive manufacturing defense technology is susceptible to cyberattacks, which could jeopardize the production process's security and dependability. Data security raises significant concerns in the defense sector, where reliable and secure systems, processes and components are essential.
Data Governance/Compliance: Vital elements to ITAR or CMMC military/DoD compliance requirements are stringent, and are top-of-mind for any US contract aerospace/defense manufacturing organization. However, having an automation-centric solution can be an essential part of one’s process to validate & certify 3D Printed components for most aerospace and military-grade specifications.
Additive Manufacturing has revolutionized the way the defense industry produces and maintains its equipment. The ability to produce complex geometries quickly and efficiently, as well as the reduction in lead times, has enabled the military to become more agile and flexible in its operations. While there are still limitations and challenges to be addressed, the future of AM in defense looks promising, with new materials and multi-material printing.
The use of industrial software-driven solutions and deep analysis software tools like CASTOR offer unique insights into understanding direct costs associated with 3D printing, before the first batch has been manufactured. When it comes to analyzing and planning the digital supply chain for the aerospace and defense industry, CASTOR is a prominent industry player for parts identification and for optimizing AM production, automatically. To learn more about how CASTOR can automatically analyze your product design files to help your organization discover additive manufacturing opportunities, to and experience CASTOR - schedule your demo.