3D printing, more correctly known as additive manufacturing has been around since 1984 but only available to specific companies. In 2010 when many of the patents began to expire, the systems became better known. Systems also became smaller and available for home use. There are several types of 3D printers available on the market that use a variety of technologies to layer and vertically print in several materials including many plastics and alloys. Additive manufacturing could create a truly evolutionary way to conduct logistics for certain forward deployed forces.
There are many advantages to additive manufacturing from a military perspective. 3D manufacturing allows component parts to be manufactured as complete parts rather than pieces that must be fastened together. The Navy has recently begun having several parts for the F-18 produced through AM. An air duct that is being manufactured previously required five separate parts to be screwed together, now it is manufactured as one complete piece. This reduces the number of available failure points and reduces the overall weight of the part.
Another big advantage is in cubic space. When intermediate maintenance units deploy with parts pack ups, they have to plan on a wide variety of parts so they can be prepared for a variety of part failures and replacements. There is a lot of research and analytics that goes into creating the pack up list based on historical failure rates, and preventative maintenance cycles, but there are still pieces that never get used during the deployment and others that are needed but are in short supply. Each of these parts takes up a significant amount of cubic space in the storage area, whether it is on a FOB or aboard a ship. Each of these parts typically also come in a shipping container which is several times the size of the part it contains, thereby taking up even more space and weight. If parts can be additively manufactured forward, then the number of parts in the pack up will go down significantly, and the rest can be made on site. Additionally, the base material is stored in pellet or block form which takes up less than half the space and requires no shipping container. When you have a group of parts that can be made out of the same material, you now can now carry less weight, because you only make the components you need.
Because the base material can be stored as blocks or pellets, and would be common to many different components, the supply system would be significantly simpler. Underway replenishment ships would carry blocks of base material that could be transferred to any ship that needed it, it would not have to be part specific. For land based operations, logistic sites would do the same and just ship out the material needed.
To be clear, additive manufacturing is not a suitable manufacturing method for every component. Some parts require a combination of additive and traditional subtractive manufacturing. Others must be forged for increased strength and others
There are two ways to make this method of parts manufacture truly revolutionary. The first would be to develop the ability to recycle the broken or expended part. There is a reasonable likelihood that a version of this capability may be developed for commercial application, but it is likely to be a multi-step process with an external recycling company involved in the purification, destruction and recovery of the base materials. The process would have to be developed which insured the integrity of the recycled base material as is often the case with recycled materials. That will work fine for the commercial world, but the challenge they will have is whether it is cost effective from a commercial perspective. If it is not, then only incentives to make products recyclable will cause companies to pursue it as a technology. It would be beneficial to the military to incentivize the development of these recyclable technologies for additive manufactured products. Once the base technology is developed, the military should further develop expeditionary recycling technology to allow the process to be performed at forward bases or aboard major ships. This would allow expended parts to be sent to an intermediate maintenance facility to be broken down and recycled into base material, which can then be returned to the end user without ever having to transport parts into or out of the operating area.
The second game changer would be to develop the ability to produce temporary parts that can be manufactured from scavenged material within the operating area. The ability for smaller outposts to manufacture parts from scavenged silica or plastics that can perform effectively for a limited time period could allow the outpost to continue to operate until sufficient base material could be supplied.
In order to accomplish this, there would have to be changes in the way acquisition contracts are written. Most of the money in acquisitions today is made on the back end because of the support and supply contracts. Manufacturers would not be very tolerant of cutting out their production lines from the supply process unless they were duly compensated. Contracts might have to include DoD ownership of the .STL files which would increase the initial purchase cost of the platform. Another option could be a cost per print contract which would allow the manufacturer to be paid for each print for the use of their intellectual property.