Why it matters

Additive Manufacturing (AM), widely known as 3D-printing, has been identified by the European Commission as one of the key enabling technologies to improve European industrial competitiveness given its ability for rapid, delocalised and flexible manufacturing. 

AM is already used in civil industry and by defence producers. However, the armed forces are still far from exploiting the full potential of this technology. 

The expected growth of the AM market could generate many advantages for the European defence community: cost reduction on the production of tools and parts, design enhancements, reduced time to reach the end-user, increased technical and commercial competitiveness. At the same time, 3D-printing is set to considerably impact the maintenance of military platforms through the production of spare parts and equipment components. Since the European air, land and maritime defence systems have complex and particular underlying structures, the customization facility of AM and its on-site and on-demand characters are particularly interesting for defence. Equally beneficial are the weight reductions and the increase in resistance and durability of components which in conventional subtractive manufacturing processes were more difficult to achieve because of the processing and time limitations. Furthermore, AM technologies can be highly promising for enhancing defence capabilities such Logistic Support for Deployed Forces in remote or hostile environments. 

Having AM technologies in the area of operation might significantly impact the course of CSDP missions. Time between failure and restore the availability of platforms, transportation and storage of significant quantities of spares can be decreased, with the associated costs reduction, reducing the logistic footprint of an operation.

What the EDA does

To further explore the deployability of AM technologies, in 2016 the European Defence Agency launched a project aimed at raising awareness of 3D-printing in defence. 

The ‘Additive Manufacturing Feasibility Study & Technology Demonstration’ project successfully deployed a 3D-printing lab to Zaragoza (Spain) for the duration of the third European Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Course in June 2017 (EAATTC 17-3). The successful test flight of the AM lab was pivotal to examining the feasibility of deploying the facility by air. 

During the deployment, the AM lab generated a lot of interest from the multinational units involved in EAATTC 17-3. The deployment also underscored the strong interest and potential of AM technologies across all military branches (pilots, maintenance, technicians and logistic support), who were keen to learn how 3D-printing could benefit their area of expertise.

The project represents a clear example of how cross-fertilization of ideas from different domains, from R&T to operations, will enhance defence capabilities, especially when supporting missions. The lessons learned from this deployment will contribute to shaping the design and requirement of future 3D-printing facilities.

The way ahead

Increasing awareness of AM’s potential for defence is crucial. Equally important will be to create synergies between the Materials R&T community and the operational military staff, and helping the R&T community to understand the capability requirements from the defence side. 

Further exploration of 3D-printing facilities deployed in operations will be highly beneficial to gather data on their impact. With this, the awareness and knowledge about the capability improvements AM can generate will be widened and improved. In addition, training is required to make this technology effective and accessible to military users. On the technology side, further work is foreseen regarding the use of additive manufacturing for energetic materials, light weight ballistic protections and packaging and cooling of electronic components. Other key challenges to address are the standardisation of the processes, certification of the parts produced and the legal aspects. 

The dissemination of these developments, along with the exchange of information on efforts in participating Member States, will help create momentum at European level and support the identification of potential collaborative activities. Fulfilling this technology gap can enhance the logistical and operational agility of armed forces and give European defence a game-changing competitive advantage in a rapidly evolving technological and conflict landscape.

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