Editor’s Note: Dr. Thomas Russell is director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Adelphi, Md. Russell started his government career as a research scientist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, White Oak Laboratory, Md. In 1994, he joined the Naval Research Laboratory where he worked in many leadership positions. In 2006, he moved to the U.S. Air Force where he became director of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He was responsible for the Air Force basic research program in aerospace, chemical and material sciences. Russell has led the U.S. Army Research Laboratory Since March 11, 2013. He holds a bachelor of science in chemistry from Muhlenberg College and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Delaware. He has been a visiting scientist at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, an adjunct professor at the Washington State University Shock Dynamics Laboratory and a part-time faculty member at Montgomery College. His principal fields of interest are energetic materials, decomposition and combustion chemistry, detonation physics and chemistry, high-pressure chemistry and physics and spectroscopy. He entered the Senior Executive Service in 2006.
What is the current research strategy for additive manufacturing and 3-D printing?
I think the vision for the lab is to do research guided by a long-term vision. What we want to do is the same kind of thing we’re doing in material design, which is materials by design. In the case of additive manufacturing, it’s really about how do we do structures by design. It’s a voxel-by-voxel assembly of materials. What that would be in a 3-D structure is placing material location by location and building the fundamental building blocks to actually design structures. For ARL, a lot of it is about hybridization. If I’ve got to do hybrid materials, how do I actually improve strength, durability and things that are really directed more toward the Army’s specific applications? In the commercial world, people are doing similar things, but the Army application typically puts our materials in extreme environments. It’s a different set of material science where we’re looking toward solving problems.
What 3-D printing and additive manufacturing does is give us a unique approach to begin to design those materials from the foundations as opposed to using traditional processing techniques.
What is the potential of 3-D printing?
It’s an exciting area at the moment. There’s a lot of work you hear about in the press about plastics. A lot of people have actually talked about plastic guns and how you can design plastic guns, but there’s a lot more than that pushing the frontiers. People today are beginning to do manufacturing of biological materials. In the future through additive manufacturing, we may be able to produce a heart and do transplants. For Soldiers, there are some medical benefits too. Many of the injuries Soldiers receive in the field are not traditional. A lot of the medical community sees this as a new approach to medicine. We can 3-D scan injuries. We can replicate what those injuries are. Surgeons and medics can practice on those specific types of injuries and provide better service to the warfighter.
Logistically there are benefits. One of our biggest challenges in the Army is that there is a huge logistics burden. If we could forward-deploy manufacturing capabilities, we would have the opportunity to manufacture parts in-theater, or repair parts. This is not just about manufacturing a new part, it’s often about how we can repair something that has been damaged. We have the opportunity to do that in-theater and use local materials. It’s an exciting area. I don’t think we’ve realized its full potential.