5 ways advanced metal AM can transform the defense industry

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Transitioning to advanced metal additive manufacturing gives the defense industry the ability to service and maintain legacy assets in new ways. PHOTO courtesy Airbus.

by Amir Iliaifar, director of content, Velo3D

Metal 3D printing is an emerging field with the potential to revolutionize the defense industry. It can enable a future of highly complex, innovative technologies, while also maintaining and bolstering existing, aging infrastructure.

In this article we’ll look at five ways advanced metal additive manufacturing can have a transformative effect on the defense industry.

1. Maintain Legacy and Aging Infrastructure

Advanced metal additive manufacturing is a competitive advantage when it comes to rapid prototyping and the development of net-new technologies, but the truth is a large percentage of our military infrastructure is legacy equipment that will be in the field for the foreseeable future. Some of this legacy infrastructure may even rely on maintenance and parts support from manufacturers that are no longer in service.

Transitioning to advanced metal additive manufacturing gives the defense industry the ability to service and maintain legacy assets in new ways.

Through metal 3D printing, core parts can be recreated from existing designs and produced far more quickly than sourcing manufacturers that specialize in legacy infrastructure.

This newfound agility breathes new life into aging assets which helps maintain battlefield superiority.

2. Create Agile Supply Chains

Speaking of agility, the pandemic truly exposed how vulnerable and weak manufacturing supply chains really are. For mission-critical parts, it’s a major hurdle navigating supply chain choke points that result in monthslong delays.

Emerging leaders in the field of hypersonic flight are turning to advanced metal AM to design, produce, and rapidly iterate on mission-critical components.

Hermeus, an Atlanta-based company developing reusable hypersonic aircraft for defense and commercial applications, has invested in the Sapphire technology to dramatically reduce lead times on the production of core components for their Chimera engine.

According to Hermeus CTO Glenn Case, “We couldn’t do what we’re trying to do today without additive. Right now, with the supply chain where it is, you’re looking at a half a year or a full year out in terms of being able to get those types of components. Speed is incredibly important to us, and that’s where it shines.”

By shifting parts production to advanced metal AM systems, the defense industry can drastically reduce lead times for these important parts.

Instead of relying on single sources of manufacturing, the defense industry can tap into a rich network of contract manufacturers to create a distributed supply chain that showcases the agility necessary to keep pace with any emerging global conflict.

 3. Advanced Metal AM Increases Competitive Advantage

Though the military applications for advanced metal AM are still in the early stages, metal 3D printing has been revolutionizing the innovative capacity in other industries—space, aerospace, oil and gas, and beyond—for years.

The promise of advanced metal AM is the ability to create more complex parts and give engineers true design freedom not limited by issues of manufacturability.

For example, Aerojet Rocketdyne and nTopology collaborated to use Velo3D’s fully integrated metal AM solution to create lighter, smaller rocket control systems.

Traditional manufacturing methods such as casting, brazing, and welding, could not achieve the internal channel complexity required, while conventional metal AM systems struggled with the part’s delicate lattice features, which are used to increase stiffness.

Velo3D’s metal AM technology printed the part with minimal support structures and without tilting the part relative to the build plate.

This allowed the part to be printed in the optimal orientation and eliminated significant amounts of post-processing. Velo3D also printed the part in Titanium 6Al-4V, a hard and brittle material, with minimal thermal stress.

The resulting RCS thruster is one-fifth the mass and one-half the size of the original, while retaining all functionality. It’s also one-third the cost and easier to assemble, with a lower risk of failure.

By leveraging advanced metal additive manufacturing, the defense industry can execute on complex parts, particularly in the all-important field of hypersonics, that go far beyond the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes as well as legacy metal AM systems. These part improvements mean better efficiency and improved fuel burn, longer lifespans through more durable material options, better emission standards and much more.

 4. Build a Scalable, Repeatable Near-Theater Manufacturing Solution

Where legacy metal additive manufacturing systems have struggled is in the realm of repeatability. Getting one machine to recreate a part exactly the same as the machine next to it has been a hurdle that has impeded metal AM from being a reliable, scalable manufacturing solution.

In new, advanced metal 3D printing systems—like the one pioneered by Velo3D—the integration of design software, printing hardware, quality assurance, and fleet-level calibration has created the conditions for scalability.

For example, a build package can be created at one of the US base arsenals, a team validate that build package in the US, and then send it to a near-theater Velo3D machine where it can then be reproduced to the exact same standards. With the Velo3D repeatable print file capabilities, we can ensure that the build package will be identical to the build in the US.

What this means for military applications is that manufacturing centers can be set up near-theater to supply the front lines with crucial parts nearly on-demand. And, unlike traditional forms of manufacturing that necessitate expert training to produce mission-critical parts, an advanced metal AM system doesn’t require specialist knowledge to operate.

 5. Reduce Reliance on Foreign Manufacturing

The promise of distributed supply chains also means more control over manufacturing for the defense industry. Rather than relying on fabrication in other parts of the world, the defense industry can instead shift production to more domestic owned or operated manufacturing partners.

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