3D printing is achieved via an additive process. Successive layers of selected materials are added to one another until a final object is built-up. Modern 3D printing can use multiple types of materials in this process, making it highly creative and versatile as per a designer’s requirements.
Outside of the military, experts within industry and manufacturing are certain that once the technology evolves far enough, we will be seeing 3D printing technologies and products throughout all industries.
For the Royal Air Force and Ministry of Defence, 3D printing is applicable for a variety of applications, some known, and some yet to be discovered. Current examples of 3D printed tech in operation include: replacement parts for Tornado Fighter Jets, as substitutes limbs for lost body parts, and for creating new, light-weight armours. 3D printing has also been extensively used in the making military prototypes, with many of these products being put directly into the production line.
One application of 3D printing that the RAF and MOD are keen to explore, is the use of 3D printers for on-field applications and machinery repair.
Ordering a specific component or part for a broken machine requires actions and input from multiple actors. At present, this is severely limiting the military in live operations, as there are lengthy time and communication delays related to the current supply chain. Even with this network running at full efficiency, the number of stages through which a replacement part must go through before reaching the front line, hampers the forces ability to react quickly to changing scenarios. It is also impractical to have multiple components of machinery ready at the front line, owing to space, transportation and cost constraints.
A possible solution to this issue could be the utilisation of 3D printers for front line applications. By their very nature, a 3D printer can be used to print almost any part instantaneously, as long as a user has the correct schematics and design for their required product.
The speed and creativity afforded by 3D printers would allow maintenance teams to produce parts as and when required on the front-line, rather than having to wait for the procurement, manufacturing, and final delivery of products. It provides a cost-effective production method that is highly stylised and adaptable to the developer’s needs, removing a reliance on private / outside manufacturing and issues relating to time and mission delays.
3D printing technologies allow the RAF and MOD to be highly responsive to product part and maintenance requirements, cutting out time delays and red-tape associated with the commercial production and procurement process.
In line with the above, the RAF and MOD are trying to better understand the varied applications and benefits that can come from 3D printing and associated technologies. As the service continues to grow its sphere of influence around the globe, the RAF and MOD need to ensure that their supply lines are capable of appropriately and efficiently supporting them in their varied applications. 3D printers are seen as crucial tools in improving the operational adaptability and speed of the service, removing reliance of outside organisations, and putting control back in the hands of the service.
Because of this, the RAF and MOD have set aside substantial financial investment and resources to explore how companies and new 3D printing technologies can best be incorporated into the service. They are directly looking for the skills and services that will help revolutionise the operational abilities and efficiency of the service.