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3D Printing Could Dramatically Reduce the Military's Need for Defense Contractors

Aerospace, automotive, and healthcare manufacturers are perched on the leading edge of 3D printer adoption. But John Hornick, author of the new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, writes that the U.S. military is actually leading the way in layered manufacturing.

Military projects include 3D printing uniforms and body armor, weapons, blast-proof vehicle parts, and drones. Logistics experts foresee using 3D printing to perform field repairs, enable shipboard manufacturing, and fabricate food for frontline troops. Military medical scientists print models of human brains and skulls to study the effects of shockwaves and traumatic injuries. Research is underway to 3D print surgical instruments and human skin.

The US Navy is 3D printing drones for counter-piracy and counter-narcotics operations. The US Army created a mobile fab lab for 3D printing equipment and replacement parts as needed, where needed, when needed.

In a recent presentation to the senior generals of the U.S. Marine Corps, all branches of the U.S. military indicated they are experimenting with 3D printing for repair, supply, engagement, and even shelter. A Marine Corps report showed how far ahead the Marine Corps is in its thinking about 3D printing.

"Small units could...self-manufacture a significant portion of their equipment," allowing the unit leader to 'imagine' and manufacture the equipment required for each mission." To the Marines, replacement also means improvement: "If a part must be replaced after only 20 uses, [3D Printing] allows the new parts to be continually improved."

The report concluded that 3D printing could change the paradigm of equipment standardization. The ability of smaller units to build environment and mission-unique equipment reduces the requirement for standardized gear across the force as a whole. The future of small arms may be to simply to direct the type of ammunition that will be supplied, leaving it to the individual units to design and produce the weapon itself to fire that ammunition.

A 3D printed military would be an agile military.

3D Printing and Defense Procurement

An important strength of 3D printing is manufacturing on demand, which results in democratized and regional manufacturing, distributed all over the world. The Marine Corps report observed that democratized, regional, and distributed 3D printed manufacturing could lead to a substantial increase in the number of suppliers, which will increase competition, decrease costs, reduce wait time, eliminate inventories, reduce out-of-service equipment, shorten supply chains, and reduce reliance on existing supply chains.

This could stress the business models of defense contractors. Industry commentator Robert G. Bugge predicts that government organizations will start making their own spare parts, and shake corporate foundations by doing so:

New America Foundation warfare expert Peter Singer foresees major 3D printing-driven shakeups in the defense supply chain: "Defense contractors want to sell you an item but also want to own the supply chain for 50 years. But now you'll have soldiers in an austere outpost somewhere like Afghanistan who can pull down the software for a spare part, tweak the design and print it out."

Obsolete parts will be a major driver of military organizations making their own replacement parts. For example, Dr. Khershed Cooper of the US Office of Naval Research wrote that:

The Marines report reached the same conclusion:

Military organizations may initially adopt 3D printing to make replacement parts that are obsolete or unavailable from the original manufacturer. This will give them experience with the technology, show them what it can do, save them money, and eliminate the need to stockpile huge numbers of parts that may or may not be needed someday. From there, it will be a small step to making any part whenever and wherever it is needed, and customizing it, too, rather than buying it from the manufacturer.

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3D Printing Will Rock the World

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