Three-dimensional printing, also known as positive prototyping, represents a way to overcome the resource waste associated with manufacturing where items are cut to fit: it prints objects directly to specification. While the Australian debate about the potential value of 3D printing is slowly growing, the technology itself is rapidly advancing and has the potential to be a game changer for the ADF. As is evident from this infographic (PDF), 3D printing has already made significant contributions to industries such as aviation and medicine, where items ranging from aircraft parts to organs and cells have been printed. The US Army deployed two mobile fabrication labs to Afghanistan this year ‘to fabricate custom-designed fixes on the spot’. China has already included it in the development of its next-gen aircraft production. In fact, this technology has become so commonly available that eBay recently released Exact, an app that enables users to design and print their own 3D objects. These are but a few examples of a changing field in which the ADF could have a larger stake.
The ADF has already missed the start of the 3D revolution. Now it’s at risk of missing the next evolution—4D. In February, Skylar Tibbits introduced the world to 4D printing—the ability to program 3D-printed materials’ memory so that they self-assemble into the desired object when triggered by external stimuli such as liquid or motion. Imagine holding onto a standard 3D-printed object the size of a golf ball, then shaking it and placing it on a table while it [re]configures itself into the item you’ve specified, whether a knife, a receiver for an assault rifle or a replacement canteen. The applications for enhancing military capability once this technology matures are endless, but so too are the adverse applications of use by opposing states or non-state actors.
The ability to print-on-demand virtually any item provides a number of advantages, especially with regard to the capability cycle and logistics. Presently, the acquisition of new or updated equipment can take years which can result in the end product being outdated before it enters service. Three and 4D printing may allow troops in the field to not only identify and report problems but also to print the required equipment solution in real time, regardless of scale. Whether it’s modifying soldier kit for accuracy and comfort, minimising force risk in conflict zones by using 3D-printed structures to rapidly establish Forward Operating Bases, or printing guns, food and medicine, this technology has the potential to make immediate contributions to how we fight and conduct other military activities such as HADR operations.
The logistics burden of forward deployments could be reduced—perhaps substantially—as this technology improves to allow the use of locally available materials in the printing process. For example, the Solar Sinter Project allows researchers to 3D print a glass object using only sand and sun. Many ADF future operating environments will have both of these raw materials in abundance. Three and 4D printing also has the potential to enhance efficiency by decreasing the cost and time required for maintenance and sustainment activities, freeing more resources for training and operations.
Exploring this rapidly evolving technology may also enable the ADF to drive market creativity (rather than vice versa), something that has historically been considered both expensive and risky, given the potential efficiencies that this technology could deliver. The Australian recently highlighted the potential benefits of 3D printing to the Australian economy, relative to China, when it identified the elimination of factories, fleets of trucks, ships, supply chains and middlemen as immediate savings in production time and supply line tariffs while also enhancing our domestic manufacturing capacity.
Three and 4D printing won’t solve all of the military’s supply chain problems; but it will make it more responsive and efficient. The recent successful test of a rocket engine with printed parts serves as a prime example of both the potential contribution to capability and savings: its designers printed the parts in one quarter of the estimated manufacturing time and for 70% less than the projected cost. While full exploitation of 3 and 4D printing’s potential remains a long way off, it’s worth serious consideration to ascertain how it will influence future conflicts and how the ADF trains and sustains.
Clint Arizmendi is a researcher at the Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Image courtesy of F.AT.