Could 3D printing be the future for defence?

Summary: 3D printing has been described as a revolutionary new technology with massive, global implications in a wide range of sectors and industries. In light of recent debates on military cuts, reduced capability and concerns over the future of the defence industry, could this technology be the next step in saving defence?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the layer-by-layer building of a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape on a 3D printer. 3D printers work like regular printers, but on a vertical as well as horizontal axis, depositing materials in successive layers to create a physical object from a digital file.

The implications of 3D printing are huge. Through this process, the manufacture of goods or equipment could potentially be done ‘in-house’ in a matter of hours as opposed to weeks, eliminating the need for a lengthy delivery process and increasing the ability to create bespoke materials for individual uses.

In the defence industry, the cost of manufacture could come down and troops could benefit from more unique and individual equipment. In particular, 3D printing could be ideal for meeting the urgent operational needs of warfare. Damaged components in hostile environments could be printed at the base rather than waiting for replacement parts to arrive.

Providing you have the desired digital designs and materials, 3D printing could enable an individual to develop desired objects on the spot when needed rather than placing an order and waiting on the supply chain to deliver.

Where 3D printing is being employed, it’s already making lives easier. In 2011, engineers at the University of Southampton designed and flew the world’s first 3D printed aircraft. The UAV was built in seven days for a budget of £5000 – a tiny sum considering 3D printing allowed the plane to be built with normally expensive elliptical wings.

There are, of course, concerns about the technology. If used en-masse, is it possible that the supply chain could be hit hardest, with firms relying on sub-contracting opportunities with defence agencies being excluded in favour of additive manufacturing.

As the military begins to look more seriously at the implications of 3D printing (the US Army is launching “expeditionary labs,” self-contained spaces designed by its Rapid Equipping Force that hold manufacturing equipment including 3D printers and Computer Numerical Control machines), suppliers need to be aware of all defence opportunities available to them, particularly if these opportunities begin to reduce as the technology becomes more widespread.

While a full-scale adoption of 3D printing seems many years away, if ever, it is certainly an area of innovation which defence suppliers should keep in mind in the years to come.

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