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AM Eases Defense Supply Chain Challenges

Lt. Col. Foster Ferguson
By Lt. Col. Foster Ferguson USMC (Ret.), Global Director for Aerospace, Stratasys

For military and defense teams, additive manufacturing (AM) can play numerous roles in a national supply chain network. It is a versatile technology that provides several advantages, chiefly by rapidly delivering secure, on-demand, reliable and customizable parts to maximize defense options and readiness. Most importantly, AM can help military organizations maintain mission momentum with a “one-on-the-shelf” parts mentality, improving turnaround time for return-to-service equipment while lowering costs.

For example, the United States Marines recently saved more than $2,100 by 3D printing a critical part on the USS John P. Murtha ship. With the part on backorder using traditional means, it would have taken weeks or months to replace. Using onboard AM, the part was printed for just $0.07.

This approach also reduces warehousing requirements while implementing a rapid restocking plan. It makes restocking at the three maintenance tiers (depot, intermediate and field) easier and optimizes onboard parts availability.

At the depot, using AM allows teams to anticipate field needs to build and ship parts in advance. In the intermediate repair level, AM simplifies the process of spare part production for polymers and metals that require minimal post-processing. Lastly, the field tier addresses emergent needs through rapid tooling and immediate repair with spare parts. Focusing on all three tiers, with a simplified production of spare parts, streamlines returning equipment to the fight in one day versus weeks or months using traditional methods.

The U.S. Naval Air System’s Command (US NAVAIR) has also integrated AM into its continuing operations. With some equipment nearly 40 years old, AM accelerated maintenance for F/A-18, CH-53E and P3 aircraft, which often require parts that are challenging to manufacture traditionally. Using AM, NAVAIR can rapidly produce parts globally, reducing the risks of overseas production and mitigating material shortages.

The Marines are also creating 126 Tier 1 pre-approved, downloadable common part files that can be printed globally, and two Navy ships recently introduced 3D printers. Ultimately, combat forces can easily and securely print parts and upgrade current vehicles or weapon systems in the field.

Printing polymer or metal parts at the point of need with minimal disruption enables better prioritization of immediate field needs. Such urgency is vital to address emergent needs through rapid, immediate tooling to repair military equipment in a fraction of the time as traditional tooling. AM also can benefit tooling, as some situations require modified tools.

In a defense ecosystem, maintaining consistent connectivity and security within a supply chain and the materials route is critical throughout the distributed maintenance locations. This is possible via AM, as engaged forces in the field can continue operations without interruptions due to inadequate maintenance tools or unavailable parts. Taking this approach keeps component information secure and drastically lowers supply chain risks with the ability to print parts and reduce downtime during the procurement of new parts. 

Using AM, the part files are stored either in a secure cloud database or created from an onsite CAD file. Other than the filament, powder or other materials used to create a part, these components can go directly from the printer to installation. They are not tooled or made in a single place, and they don’t have to be transferred across multiple transportation lines to another location, meaning they do not have to be warehoused or placed in a depot until they arrive at their final destination. There are no places in the supply chain for outside interference, making AM secure, expedient and reliable.

AM creates ruggedized polymer and emergency metal capabilities, alleviating supply challenges. It enables global bases to produce on-demand parts that meet exact specifications. Ultimately, supply chain enablement in defense begins with an end-to-end, tiered AM approach that enhances reliability throughout the digital thread and distributed manufacturing network. What goes in is repeatable at all nodes within the connected network. To better deliver point-of-need capabilities, a comprehensive strategy that includes AM across all tiers, technologies and aspects of the supply chain with strategic, operational and tactical capabilities is vital.

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