3D printing

Army preps on-the-spot 3D printing process for the battlefield

In the latest example of how the military is learning to fix on the fly, the Army is developing a technology that will allow soldiers in combat zones to use 3D printing to repair damaged parts in aircraft and ground vehicles.

The new program, a joint effort between the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Purdue University, combines the ABAQUS analysis tools with Python, an open source code that can be used to optimize structures.

According to a blog post from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland,  developing the ability to use 3D technology in the field to repair damage was an added bonus. The original goal was to create vehicles using a set of parts and topologically interlocked structures (TIS) using standard materials.

"The benefit for the soldier is an after-effect," Ed Habtour, a research engineer said in the post. "The TIS would provide an excellent energy absorption and dissipation mechanism for future vehicles using additive manufacturing. Subsequently, the soldier can print these structures in the field using additive manufacturing by simply downloading the model generated by the designer."

The segmented structures the lab is working on would be highly resistant to damage. Vehicles and airplanes made of them would be more resistant to heat, cracks caused by constant vibration and combat damage. They may even be better able to survive crashes. Once any of that damage does occur, a soldier could then diagnose the problem and use 3D printing to create replacement parts. If the outer skin of the vehicle were damaged, new parts could literally be printed and stuck onto the existing vehicle, making it as good as new.

"Sometime in the near future, soldiers would be able to fabricate and repair these segmented structures very easily in the front lines or Forward Operating Bases, so instead of moving damaged ground or air vehicles to a main base camp for repair, an in-field repair approach would essentially mean vehicles would be fixed and accessible to warfighters much faster at lower costs," Habtour wrote. "We want to change the conventional thinking by taking advantage of exciting materials and manipulating the structure based on the principle of segmentation and assembly."

The project is just among the latest military efforts to make innovative use of 3D printing. Last year, the Army added 3D printing capability to several of its Rapid Equipping Force labs in Afghanistan.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Fri, Aug 23, 2013 Mike PA

Jeri, 3D printing of metals essentially creates an object composed of welds. IMO the biggest downside of something like this would be the necessity of carrying the raw materials. Unless you have the tools to shred existing parts to reform in the printer, you would need to have at least the amount of weight in materials (metal powder, foil, etc. depending on the printing process) that you'd be replacing/repairing.

Thu, Aug 22, 2013 Jeri Milkner Midwest

This article has pretty progressive statements. I know current 3d printing systems. We use them to copy some simple stuff for development goals. 3D printing is nice. I know aircraft because I’m a mechanic and an old school Aero engineer with updated training. Current aircraft are put together with welds, fasteners and rivets for the metal and very complex glue for the composites. As an aircraft inspector with war experience I know. I do not think the Army we will be able to sign off complex repairs just yet nor in the immediate future. This article has very forward thinking that may sell these 3d printers. Due to safety and general physics 3d printing may always be limited to simple stuff. What bothers me is the ease to “copy items” and not pay for intellectual data rights to the rightful owners. The gun makers, Boeings, Lockheed’s, Oshkosh’s, and other major defense manufacturers should be worried about this capability we are moving towards.

Thu, Aug 22, 2013 earth

I see this as being of much more benefit to the farming industry. If you are racing to get a 1000 acres of wheat harvested before a rainstorm flattens a field and a combine breaks down, you stand to lose hundreds of thousands in lost costs (planting, weeding, etc), other workers and equipment idled, and future contracts being honored (you may have to buy high to fulfill a contract) . Farm equipment is designed to run 24/7 under adverse conditions (though with few people trying to shoot it) but it does break down and there is no good time during planting or harvesting for even an hour of down time.
The benefit to the people of farmers being more successful ripples outwards with lower food prices. We don’t have to have wars of choice but we do have to have successful farmers, 87% of the US lives in cities and are therefore dependent on the less than 13% that make that possible.

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