In 3D printing technology, an object is created layer by layer through a specially designed printer using various types of materials. The writer believes this revolutionary technology is likely to change the ways in which supply chains and logistics are maintained in defence forces.
Imagine a technician in war zone sending an e-mail along with a digital scan of an unserviceable part of an armoured fighting vehicle which then gets printed at the nearest available 3D printer and delivered to him in no time. Thinking on a larger scale, the need of carrying and maintaining large inventories in a battle zone can be done away with 3D printing. This revolution is taking place in a silent manner and it appears that we are standing at the verge of next industrial revolution which is likely to have far reaching implications for supply chain and logistics management of armed forces.
The history of 3D printing dates back to 1984 when commercial 3D printing was based on stereolithography technique in which ultraviolet beams were used to trace a slice of an object on the surface of liquid photopolymer resulting in the hardening of photopolymer. The process was repeated over several layers depending upon the shape and size of the object, till complete object was printed. Other 3D printing techniques that got evolved over the years are: DLP Projection, Polyjet Matrix, Material Extrusion, Inkjet Powder Jetting, Direct Metal and Laser Sintering.
3D printing can recreate objects of any imaginable nature. From aerospace parts to operational Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), small arms to light machine guns, ammunition, prosthetic limbs and now even organs can be printed. Researchers at Princeton University have created a bionic ear which is able to receive and transmit sound, pick up radio signals and also hear signals which are million times higher than a human ear can hear.
3D Printing in Defence
The enormous ways in which 3D printing can be utilised is likely to alter the ways in which supply chains and logistics are maintained in defence forces. For any supply chain, the key elements are the manufacturer, goods/supply carrier and the end user. Considering the range and depth of the inventory maintained by defence forces, the supply chain and logistic lines of control stretches from one end of the country to remote border areas as also several hundred nautical miles into the sea carrying millions of tons of stores comprising ammunition, spares and components, minor and major assemblies, etc. Some of these stores are sensitive in nature and a large number of them have limited shelf life.
Operational readiness of defence forces largely depend upon the serviceability state of equipment in the hands of the troops. Continuous deployment and usage requires regular maintenance and repairs in case of failures. Often, non-availability of critical spares and components leads to non-availability of an equipment or weapon to troops, seriously hampering their war fighting capability. In case the equipment is of old vintage especially of foreign origin, the criticality gets further compounded. 3D printing can thus provide an easy solution to this problem. Once the digital scan or drawing is made available, the component can be straightway printed. To start with, critical components of armoured fighting vehicles, small arms, field guns, UAVs, aircraft components etc. can be identified for printing onsite or close to the deployment of equipment which will drastically reduce the downtime of the equipment. Logistic tails thus will get reduced, reducing security risk and cost.
The most revolutionary thing about 3D printing is the way it can convert the digital inventory into physical objects thereby reducing the requirement of critical storage space drastically. Navy has the most significant effect of this capability since it allows digital inventory to be carried onboard ships and submarines for printing by a 3D printer as and when the need arises. This not only allows optimum use of critical storage space but also creation of a large number of parts onsite. The advantage of 3D printing also lies in its efficiency. The waste generated during traditional manufacturing is drastically reduced by 3D printing which carries out layer by layer printing. The labour required in assembly of intricate and complex parts can also be reduced by 3D printing. This gives rise to distributed logistics where 3D printers are deployed close to battlefields and parts can be printed and dispatched quickly once a command is received via central control system. This would lead to quicker turnaround of vehicles and equipment from repair workshops.
3D Printing in Disaster Relief
Disaster relief is also one area where 3D printing can aid operations. Shelters can be printed onsite as per the requirement. Walls of these shelters are printed using special blend of cement. Their strength has been found to be much higher than traditional walls.
3D Printing in Healthcare
Another area where 3D printing can be utilised by defence forces is healthcare. There is a possibility in near future of bio-printing drugs and vaccines. Instead of keeping the sensitive drugs and vaccines close to a battlefield, they can be simply printed through 3D printer to avert any pandemic or to provide defence against a possible biological or chemical attack. Bio-printing machines are able to recreate heart tissues, lungs, jaw bones and other prosthetics limbs which will prove to be very useful for military hospitals for onsite treatment when removal of patient is not possible.
3D Printing and US Army, China
To lead the way, US Army has started experimenting with logistics based on 3D printing. The US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) has been assigned with 20- foot containers installed with 3D printers, computer assisted milling machines, laser and plasma cutters, known as Expeditionary Lab Mobiles (ELM). These 2.8 million dollar ELMs have been deployed in war zones of West Asia to meet the operational needs, thereby reducing the lead time for its actual procurement. US government has launched a 30 million dollar pilot programme for research on 3D printing of parts of weapons. NASA is likely to launch its first 3D printer in space sometime in 2014 which will not only reduce the cost of mission but also help astronauts create objects in space.
China is also not far behind and is likely to expand its 3D printing capabilities many folds in next three years. In May 2013, China showcased the world’s largest titanium aircraft critical component produced using 3D Laser Direct Manufacturing technology. This can substantially reduce the weight of the aircraft and also the cost of manufacturing.
3D Printing and Indian Defence Forces
While leading industrial nations are aggressively embracing this new technology, India is yet to recognise its potential and make any headway. This technology, if adopted by Indian defence forces, will have a broad effect on the long supply chains being maintained, thus reducing the cost of its maintenance substantially. Components which are critical to functioning of any vehicle or combat equipment can be identified by each of the three services and by placing the 3D printers along with raw material and digital designs at key locations, these components can be churned out as and when needed. This will help the exchequer in saving the money required for maintenance of storage space, shelf life and manpower needed to maintain the long supply chains.
3D printing technology is going through a phase of evolution but at the same time there are certain flip sides which also need to be taken into consideration before its mass utilisation by defence forces. First, replacement parts, which in war fighting machines are very critical, have to be ensured for their safety standards since quality of 3D printer, the material used and the environment in which they are created has serious bearing. Therefore, standards are needed which are virtually non-existent world over. Second, printing of parts require purchasing of intellectual property rights from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) which may cost a substantial amount to exchequer. Third, the ease with which parts can be printed does raise serious questions. Anyone holding digital designs with printing capability can churn out critical parts which have serious implications for national security. Digital designs of weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations can result in disastrous situation. Further, if an adversary lays his hands on digital files of proprietary designs, there is a possibility of altering the designs by hacking into the digital repository. Therefore, cyber security will assume greater importance.
A step further, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on 4D printing in which objects printed have properties of transforming into different objects in certain conditions. For example, the uniform of a soldier changes its camouflage pattern as per the surroundings or protects him from injury from a bullet or chemical attack.
3D printing technology is still in nascent stage, however, it is not difficult to imagine as to how it will drastically enhance the capabilities of defence forces. Capability of producing what is needed during operations will turn the table in favour of the side with better response in maintaining operational readiness by producing equipments in a short span of time. 3D printing thus will not only reduce the length of the logistic chains but also provide more flexibility and autonomy with huge tactical and strategic implications.
(Abridged version of this article has been published on IDSA website . in/idsacomments/3DPrintingandDefence_ stomar_030114)