3D Printing in Defence Forces

How 3D Printing can revolutionise Defence Forces

Additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing, could revolutionise logistics field operations for defence forces. With the capability to produce any number of spare parts on demand, the need to hold stock is eliminated while equipment that is no longer supported by the original manufacturer can be safely kept in service longer.

Countries with a small defence force can have problems supporting equipment used by service men and women. Armed forces can’t economically hold a parts inventory for each of the thousands of pieces of equipment used across the forces, some of which can have as many as a million separate components.

With defence forces maximising value from existing equipment, using some items for several decades isn’t uncommon. This means that for many years of the equipment’s life, it may be used without the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) support.

The nature of military operations means equipment is subjected to extreme conditions and treatment – while a breakdown in the field can have dire consequences. In some cases, lives depend on it.

Products such as 3D Systems ProX 500 are capable of producing precision plastic parts such as those found on multiple types of equipment used by the armed forces. One example of how a device like this can be used is that of a plastic case that was 3D printed for a GPS unit. Without the case, this expensive, high-quality GPS unit is effectively useless. From an electronic file, a new case can be produced by the ProX 500, rapidly returning the equipment to service. Compare that to the other options: holding stock for the likelihood of a case failing, or ordering one from a supplier that may or may not have spare parts available, with the associated lead times.

Additive manufacturing is only one part of the problem. In many cases, a digital specification file is not available for the required part to be printed from.

With scanning technology, a specification file isn’t needed. Instead, an existing part can be imaged, a blueprint created and an electronic (rather than physical) inventory created. The Kreon  measuring arm and scanner with Geomagic. 3D imaging software provide a complete solution for the creation of a digital inventory on the one hand, and with the ProX 500 on the other, a production facility can responsively address equipment requirements to return field equipment back to service rapidly.

Scanning technology is precise, capable of imaging a component down to 15 microns, while the software captures the model allows for editing if required and transfers it to the 3D printer.

Military operations often require ships and soldiers to be in remote regions where products are not easily accessible. 3D printing enables the forces to make components, tools, personal protective equipment, and machinery out in the field from an on-site container, or from a remote central location.

The challenges faced by defence forces are by no means unique. The same advantages of on demand manufacturing, the ability to create digital rather than physical inventory and to support equipment far beyond its warranty or specified service life can be extended to agencies such as police, fire service, search and rescue and customs.

This is an exciting application of additive manufacturing that has real benefits. Military personnel, while understandably sceptical, tend to have a ‘eureka moment’ when they see the advantages of almost instantly producing a small part that would otherwise be unobtainable – and returning a valuable piece of equipment back to service.

Written by Jim Collins, Fuji Xerox New Zealand’s 3D Strategic Sales Manager