AM in the Military – Striving for a Distributed Supply Chain


Aya Bentur  

3D Printed cap for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles - US Army

Sometimes it is the extreme situations that lead us to reevaluate our normal, we all know this too well by now. The difficulties we are currently facing with supply chains as a result of the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will eventually lead to improving supply chains for the next crisis but also for routine operations. But there are other situations in which supply chains are facing extreme conditions and we can learn from them. A case in point is supply chains in the military. In armies around the world, units are often deployed taking with them spare parts and everything that might be needed over the course of months or even years in a foreign location under combat conditions. Delivery to remote places can take a significant amount of time if delivery is possible at all. But even in this situation, the lack of a part can be crucial and even life-threatening. We can look at how the military is rethinking its supply chain as a specific answer to a specific need but we can also learn from the solutions applied and implement them in other supply chains where robustness is important.

Policies and Road Maps

The military has been adopting and integrating additive manufacturing (AM) into regular operations for some time now, from bottom-up initiatives to policies, including multi-participant collaborations and forums. Last October the US Secretary of the Army announced an advanced manufacturing policy which includes additive manufacturing along with other technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence. The policy aims to address issues such as maintenance and repair in the field as well as improving parts, specifically reducing weight in weapon systems. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy commented on the implications the policy can have on the soldiers in the field saying: “If you had an expeditionary capability, for example, to print parts, you’d be able to extend the range of a brigade combat team. Their ability to replace parts quickly, doing it within hours, as [opposed] to weeks. … There’s an immediate return where you can put it into tactical formations.”

The policy instated isn’t just about creating better parts, it’s about enhancing the supply chain in the field, in maintenance depots, and divisions. The intention is to create a digital inventory between all locations – the home base, depots, plants as well as the divisions in the field, which will ensure correct manufacturing of the part needed regardless of where it’s needed. In a similar notion to strategies of AM adoption in other industries, the end goal isn’t disrupting the existing operation but addressing the issues and gaps in it, as General Gus Perna, head of Army Materiel Command said: “I don’t want to take it over. I don’t want to replicate it. I want to be able to influence and react to the readiness drivers that are needed on the battlefield in a timely manner” (up top a 3D printed cap used to protect the fire extinguishing system housed in the wheel wells of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, without the cap, the vehicles are rendered non-mission-capable).

Titanium 3D printed bracket installed on F-22 fighter aircraft - US Air Force

The Air Force also has AM related policies in place (above a Titanium 3D printed bracket installed on F-22 fighter aircraft – US Air Force). According to Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper, “going faster is not just a tagline for us; it’s a dead-serious business about keeping the Air Force competitive and dominant”. The Air Force is already collaborating with GE on additively manufactured replacement parts for older aircraft models that are currently out of production, from the parts themselves to the tooling and molds used in their production. Outside of the US, The Royal Dutch Army is working with The Additive Manufacturing Expertise Center (AMEC). Together they are defining and coordinating roadmaps for AM use in the military. This includes an Additive Application Program which identified use cases and possible applications which will help troops in the field.

Army Agility

An advantage of military systems is having the ability to react quickly. It might seem out of character when discussing orderly institutions such as the army but there is an undeniable aspect of agility and adaptability needed when facing combat and unknown situations. This mentality and the fact that AM is not new to military operations allowed the systems and operations that are already in place to pivot in Corona times and provide aid to the US government and hospitals in the form of additively manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) and test swabs.

The AM facility at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center-Division Keyport in Washington is additively manufacturing PPE for local civilian medical workers. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity are additively manufacturing test swabs (below), with a capacity to produce up to 10,000 swabs a day. Other facilities across the US are also utilizing their AM capabilities in providing medical equipment for the Department of Defense. At regular times, Portsmouth’s Innovation Project is working with Naval Information Warfare Center-Pacific, to develop AM applications for submarines, and while clearly the pandemic has set them off course, this type of agility in the face of unpredictable circumstances is what they aim for. According to Shipyard Commander Captain Daniel Ettlich, this experience is something they will use going forward and will benefit them for many years to come in the development process of AM submarine parts.

Another example is the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) which developed a portable medical oxygen manifold for a Naval Hospital Camp, requested by Combat Logistics Regiment 15 (CLR-15) Marines. The device was developed in just a few hours, resulting in an immediate low-cost solution enabling medical teams to provide oxygen to 8 patients simultaneously. But it’s not just about creating a good solution in a time of need. An efficient supply chain can address failures that might occur in the future, planning and preparing beforehand. Therefore, as a next step, the Marines designed the relevant parts that might be needed in case of patient overflow, making them readily available for immediate production when or if the need arises.

3D Printed Test Swabs Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Thinking Ahead

As the examples above show, developing the right parts for AM goes a long way but a supply chain ensuring these parts are available for AM production when and where needed can greatly improve operations. This is true for the military but applies to any supply chain really. The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM) along with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and aided by Sikorsky, are working towards setting up a virtual inventory of all parts of the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter by scanning individual components. The project will allow the army to eventually additively manufacture some of the more niche components that are difficult to obtain.

In the Royal Netherlands Navy, similar efforts are made, Marinebedrijf Koninklijke Marine performs maintenance and repair service as well as provides spare parts to 6 frigates and 23 additional ships, which isn’t a simple task, to say the least. As part of their operations, together with Artec, they are scanning the entire Dutch Navy – that is all parts on all ships! – with the intention to reduce the turnaround time when creating new parts (below). Basically they are creating the basis for a virtual inventory, potentially ensuring not only that all parts can be replaced, but that this can be done quickly and in different locations according to where the part is needed.

Royal Netherlands Navy and Artec Scanning Ship Parts

Soldiers on the battlefield that are away from their home base and technical support can additively manufacture spare parts for immediate use cutting through what would otherwise be an extremely complicated supply chain. The reasons these supply chains need robustness (and the causes of failures) might not be directly applicable in civilian normal life, but the need for robustness, agility, and flexibility due to unforeseen difficulties and challenges is applicable to so many supply chains. Learning from the military can be very beneficial for civilian applications, as we learned earlier this century about cybersecurity applications.

Have you experienced the benefits of an AM supply chain? Tell us about it in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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