The emerging additive manufacturing path in the Defense industry: How organizations can bring 3d printing into the mainstream

The emerging additive manufacturing path in the Defense industryPosted by Grant White

In the past decade, Additive Manufacturing (AM) has experienced a meteoric rise in both its technological capability and the resulting public fascination with seemingly endless applications. Everything from web browsing, to corporate investment strategy, to government policy discussion has been touched with potential intention and excitement over the potential benefits of AM going mainstream. Evidence of this can be seen in the approximately 300 percent increase in the valuation of the global 3D Printing industry since 20112 (growing from $1.7B to over $5.1B in 2015), as well as in the six-fold increase in the popularity of “3D Printing” searches1 executed on the internet (relative to total queries over this same period). Sadly though, mere intentions don’t build anything. Even with the improved levels of product quality and printing materials, the mass application and adoption of AM in traditional manufacturing and distribution networks simply hasn’t yet taken place, much to the frustration of AM disciples.

One example of potential use is with the United States Department of Defense and the sustainment of major weapons systems. As noted by United States Air Force Colonel Patrick T. Kumashiro, “Budget uncertainty drives the long-term sustainment of legacy weapons systems, [often] far longer than the systems were originally intended for or sometimes even designed for… AM serves as a force-multiplier for systems sustainment, we can sustain these weapons systems longer than anticipated at potentially far lower costs than previously thought possible.” Recently, at Deloitte Consulting LLP’s annual Additive Manufacturing in Defense Forum, a group of federal AM specialists participated in a Military Services Panel to discuss existing opportunities for AM application, and to explore what’s preventing these opportunities from being acted upon.

AM can reduce time-to-market and costs

When AM is used to print various aerospace and defense parts (final product, components, etc.), nearly everything from product weights, to scrap amounts, to time-to-market can be significantly reduced-which in turn can reduce transportation, materials, and inventory costs (see our report, 3D Opportunity in Aerospace & Defense). Considering maintenance and repair (sustainment) expenses, as Mr. Scot Seitz of the US Army’s Logistics Innovation Agency noted, account for about 70 percent of a weapons system’s total lifetime expense, this is a significant potential cost-avoidance. In addition, the reduction in parts’ time-to-market (lead time) can also help to increase equipment readiness, an essential DOD metric on which approximately $75 Billion is spent annually–half of which is parts related.

AM can help prolong the life and effectiveness of existing systems

Given the potential for fiscal uncertainty, the ability to prolong the life and effectiveness of existing systems is paramount in the effort to enable effective transitions to new systems and prevent reliance on costly or unnecessary replacements. Here again, one panelist noted that nearly 75 percent of existing systems and weapons will likely still be present and in use in 20 years. Given such a timeline, threats such as part obsolescence and supplier attrition can prove fatal to aging systems, a threat which AM can help mitigate. With the digitalization of part designs and specifications, AM enables the production of virtually any part, at any time, wherever the additive equipment and materials are available. Through leveraging the digital thread (see our report, 3D Opportunity and the Digital Thread), AM addresses many of the risks associated with an aging supply-base, providing military leadership with a potential new approach to program sustainment.

Organizational obstacles can inhibit AM integration

AM capabilities are already found in 18 depots (including Navy yards), numerous ships, bases, etc. across the DOD enterprise. However, as Captain Frank Futcher of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations put it, “…The sharing and the standard approach simply doesn’t yet exist…the key is the connection between each of these links.” This missing connection between organizations and practitioners may be a symptom of a much larger potential issue, one that is common in the AM world: the lack of a single organizational vision. With increased guidance and support coming from the top-down, AM application could be greatly accelerated, effectively weaving the technology into an organization’s strategic and operational fabric. As Lieutenant Colonel Howard Marotto put it “The challenge/risk is organizational vision. We have the tech and the capability, it’s cheap at the bottom, let’s use it now…Creating this organizational vision will be practical, and will inform what we do.”


1Wohlers Associates, Wohlers Report (2012 – 2016)

2Analysis completed using Google Trends data


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