WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has an overarching concept for how it wants to use 3D printing and subtractive manufacturing, but now it must develop a process for using the capabilities across the service from arsenals, depots and plants, and then down to the tactical level, said Gen. Gus Perna, the head of Army Materiel Command.
The Army has dabbled in 3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — at an expeditionary level with mobile trailers, and it has used 3D printers to produce polymers for critical replacement parts like plastic caps. In subtractive manufacturing, products are typically made by cutting out sections of material using a computer numerical control machine.
But as the technology evolves, the service is working to codify a means to effectively use the capability across the force.
The Army secretary adopted an advanced manufacturing policy in October 2019 that does just that and enhances the supply chain in the field and at maintenance depots, Perna told Defense News in a statement in December.
So a policy is in place to move forward, an executive order is under development to support execution, and the Army purchased equipment and established the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. Now the next step it to develop a process, Perna told reporters at a Feb. 4. Defense Writers Group event in Washington.
At this point, the plan is to make Rock Island “the hub” of additive manufacturing capability and then selectively choose capabilities to reside at the 25 other various depots, plants and arsenals, Perna said. The Army has invested roughly $25 million in equipment at the hub. According to Perna, that has filled roughly a quarter of a warehouse at Rock Island, which he’d like to see reach capacity.
The service has delivered capability to the remaining depots, arsenals and plants, but “we’ve got ink spots here, we are not there yet. We are working on that,” Perna said.
The Army will also deliver these capabilities to divisions. While all divisions are currently authorized to buy additive manufacturing equipment, only a few are actually trying out 3D printing at the tactical level. The 25th Infantry Division in the Pacific and the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea are each conducting limited testing on a specific capability. Perna expects the Army will learn from the results.
Bringing the capability into the field is challenging because what goes into a tactical environment has to be able to move quickly and there has to be a decent power source for everything to work, according to Perna.
“I can’t just put a plethora of machines out there,” he said. “I have to get the right machines. So I want machines out there that can fix what we call readiness drivers. Things that break down a lot so that they can be done forward.”
He added that he is pacing the process because he doesn’t want to send capability worth millions of dollars into the field to make things like “door handles or replica coins or ash trays. I want to lead us through this.”
In addition to that challenge, Perna said, the one missing piece to the puzzle is creating a digital thread to connect the home base to the depots, arsenals and plants, then down to the divisions, so that no matter where a war fighter is sitting, that individual can pull up approved 3D drawings and print.
While not naming a specific university, Perna said the Army is working with one that it believes has the answer to that need.
While Perna’s timeline for developing processes and procedures related to additive manufacturing is roughly three years, he cautioned that the speed of execution “will be manifested by my ability to bring in this system that allows me to have all the drawings and then allows me to connect the user to the drawings both for execution of making a piece, but also financially. I’m not just going to make parts.”
The four-star general also stressed that this effort is not meant to take over supply chains from industry. “I don’t want to take it over. I don’t want to replicate it. I want to be able to influence and react to the readiness drivers that are needed on the battlefield in a timely manner,” he said, “so if a ship goes down or something, I want to be able to replicate that capability and make the requirement occur.”
With that, Perna stressed, “I need to have government purpose rights to repair parts.”
The days are over when industry can say it owns every piece of intellectual property, he said. “I just need the rights to produce the capabilities for the equipment that we bought. It’s for the execution of replacing these readiness drivers, not replacing the supply chain.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.