Director’s Corner: Additive Manufacturing



Just around the corner at the intersection of the future and the art of the possible lies a technology that may profoundly change Army logistics and supply. 3-D printing promises dramatic results that will benefit Soldiers.

Imagine the possibilities of three-dimensional printed textiles, metals, integrated electronics, biogenetic materials and even food. Army researchers are exploring the frontiers of an exciting technology.

One day, Soldiers will print critical repair parts at the point of need. With the logistics burden lifted, the Army will be able to lighten the load and provide more capabilities at less cost.

3-D printing is the process of making something from stock materials, such as metal or plastic powder, by adding material in successive layers. It’s also known as additive manufacturing, or AM. In contrast, traditional manufacturing processes often work in the opposite way, by subtracting material through cutting, grinding, milling and other methods.

As we find stronger hybrid materials that will integrate into a Soldier’s kit, we open opportunities to an untapped potential. Our engineers will create new designs not possible by any other manufacturing process.

This future is within our grasp.

However, material and process certification and qualification is a huge challenge. If you talk to anyone associated with AM, you’ll find that for the industry to reach exponential growth there must be a level of trust and confidence in critical component parts.

The Army Research Laboratory is working closely with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to ensure the development of standards to include consideration of Army-specific requirements and applications.

This is one of the pillars of the RDECOM strategy for future AM research investments. We are focused on developing enhanced material performance and design-for-process based on Army needs.

We’re also working to establish a comprehensive knowledge base. If we populate a government-owned database, we would have a list of parts indicating where AM is a viable alternative for tool, spares or repair.

Across the command, we have engineers and researchers working to develop rapid prototypes through innovative AM techniques. Organizations from across the government come to our centers and specify their requirements. Our prototype integration facilities use the latest 3-D printing technologies to assist in designing parts that meet fit, form and function.

To meet that mission, we’re working closely with industry and academia to advance our machine technology and improve our materials. Some of our centers are actually beta testers for industry prototypes. This symbiotic relationship helps us meet our other goal of being able to transfer Army-developed technology to the domestic industrial base.

RDECOM has been a participant the public-private partnership known as America Makes. The institute, which began as a presidential initiative to jumpstart advanced manufacturing, lays the groundwork to help the nation and the Army as we adopts the digital manufacturing of the future.

Small business is another area where we see potential partners. We hope to partner with machine and material developers to collaborate on next-generation products that will benefit the warfighter.

Additive manufacturing is gathering speed as a viable alternative to traditional methods. The Army will continue to look for ways to embrace new technologies that save money, avoid costs, streamline processes and provide innovative solutions to empower, unburden, protect and sustain our Soldiers.