It has been 40 years since the creation of the first 3D printed part, and the industry has made its mark on the manufacturing world and become an essential part of the defense industrial supply chain. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, will be a $36 billion industry by 2025 and $70.8 billion by 2030, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% between 2021 and 2030, with massive implications for the aerospace, defense, and security industry, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.
One of the primary benefits that 3D printing is bringing to the aerospace and defense industry is the option to build crucial items in the field and on demand. This has many potential benefits including reducing the amount of equipment needed on the ground, allowing ground units to operate more independently from supply lines, and reducing the pressures of coordination between different arms of the military. Multiple projects are underway in various militaries to make this a reality, with the US military leading the way.
Wilson Jones, Defense Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “The possibilities of 3D printing in the aerospace and defense industry are widespread, as demonstrated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. There, the first combat use of 3D printers was observed to produce mission-critical components for the Ukrainian armed forces.
“As Ukraine has received military donations from many different nations and operates a uniquely diverse fleet, general inconsistencies in the accessibility of spare parts and critical components pose a major challenge to force readiness and maintenance. It was noticed that 3D printers were being used to make components in the field on an ad hoc basis.”
3D printers are smaller, lighter, and more economical, which means that it will eventually make better logistical sense to send one to the front line with a supply of raw materials than to maintain an inventory of parts for every eventuality or move parts across dangerous and difficult terrain to where they are needed.
A primary example of this principle being deployed comes from the US Army Research Laboratory, where a project is underway to allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be ordered and manufactured in the field using 3D printing technology. This has the enormous benefit of allowing equipment that is mission-critical to be built and replaced in the field without the need for separate supplies.
Jones continues: “For parts that have a limited life in operation and a set deterioration rate, such as suspension bushes or protective bumpers, designing them to be produced by 3D printers means that supplies can be built as and when they are needed. This reduces the complex and unpredictable nature of maintenance, meaning that less time and planning need to be spent building up supplies of spare parts because they can be produced whenever a fault occurs or servicing is taking place. This applies to all aspects of the A&D market, from jet fighters to missiles, rockets, and small arms.”
As a specific example, Ukraine received 28 units of the Australian variant of the M113 armored fighting vehicle. This variant was manufactured over 40 years ago and has unique modifications to its cargo bed and gun platform that make it incompatible with standard M113 spare parts. 3D printing enables Ukrainian forces to manufacture the specific hinges needed to maintain these M113s, which have not been mass manufactured in decades.
Jones concludes: “In another important example, since just over half of Ukraine’s donations come from the US and the remainder from Europe, unit measurement conversions between metric and US imperial pose a major complication. If a US-manufactured vehicle needs a 1/2th inch (12.7 mm) wrench, Ukrainian mechanics with metric tools could not use their standard 12 mm wrench. As imperial-sized tools are not common outside the US, 3D printing enables such tools to be made immediately rather than be shipped from the US market. The same rules apply for screws, washers, and any other small components which can be efficiently manufactured by 3D field printers.”