Defense

3-D printing could offer flexibility for system upgrades

multifunction printer

3-D printing, which uses materials like polymers and metals to build products layer by layer, could give the Pentagon more flexibility in upgrading fielded systems in an ever-evolving threat environment, according to David Logan, a vice president at BAE Systems.

The technology offers an “opportunity for us to have a broader ability to adapt, perhaps, to environments that we couldn’t perfectly anticipate,” Logan said July 31 at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution.

The concept of 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for decades, but it is being applied in new ways that are have an impact on the Pentagon supply chain. Defense Department officials have taken notice and made the technology part of the Defense Innovation Initiative, a program that will target breakthrough technologies for the next several years.

A fielded system, whether for weapons, communication or another use, needs to adapt to new threats as it ages. According to Logan, most of that adaptation is done via software, and the importance of software to weapons systems seems only to be growing.

“Our adversaries are increasingly migrating to commercial technologies,” he said. “Like us, they’re moving away from intensive, exquisite … hardware solutions, and driving more of the content in these weapon systems into software, which just makes them inherently more agile.” 3-D printing can help the non-software pieces of fielded systems stay up to date by rapidly prototyping parts that can be integrated, Logan added.

The implications of greater DOD adoption of 3-D printing need to be thought through, said Brennan Hogan, a program manager at LMI Research Institute, during the panel discussion. 3-D printing requires 3-D data, yet the Pentagon does not own all of the data for parts that would be printed, she said. “What is the converging process for getting from 2-D to 3-D? Is it worth it? And then who owns the data?”

Hogan said her organization is working on a project with the Defense Logistics Agency to determine the parts that can be produced with 3-D printing and still retain their original functionality.

She advised the Pentagon to take advantage of 3-D printing in a “modest, incremental way” rather than dedicating a surge in resources to the cause. That seems to be what is happening, judging from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s fiscal 2016 budget request related to 3-D printing.

The agency asked for $27 million for a materials processing and manufacturing project aimed at dramatically reducing the cost and time needed to fabricate DOD systems.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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