How Distributed Metal Additive Manufacturing Can Add a Surge to Military Supplier Strategies

(Left) 107-155 mm high-explosive projectiles with fused-adapter. (Right) In January 2023, BAE Systems received a 15-year U.K. Ministry of Defence contract under “Next Generation Munitions Solution” (NGMS) to refurbish and upgrade its manufacturing lines to produce 155 mm artillery shells.

More than five years ago, then-U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Michael Griffin, announced the department’s future Defense Digital Engineering Strategy. That long-term strategy, still ongoing, aims to “formalize the development, integration, and use of models to inform enterprise and program decision making,” and provide “an enduring, authoritative source of truth” for improved innovation and culture-wide collaboration in making weapons systems and parts.

Within U.S. and Allied defense departments, there is increasing awareness that additive manufacturing (AM, aka 3D printing) as a means for achieving digitalized, on-demand, production agility, has a significant role to play in realizing these strategic goals. AM is already providing faster and more flexible part turnaround and cost reduction of some low- and even mid-volume military parts. In compliance with Department of Defense (DoD) objectives, AM is a model-based, integrated, and enterprise-ready technology — one that is now proving its worth.

Shells and Other Armaments

This early Talos missile represents a typical Ramjet design. Many parts of military systems, such as those above, can be made quickly using AM. The DoD sees digital manufacturing, including AM, as a means to strengthen and diversify the supply base. Reference paper: Talos Rim-8 Guided Missile by Phillip R. Hays PhD LT USNR-R.

The current crisis in supplying 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine brings to a head the problem of relying on traditional manufacturing and legacy supply chain practices. Production of those shells, and other military components, is slow and inventory-based. Even a doubling of shell production in the U.S. — as planned, to 1.2 million units per year by 2025 — would not support Ukraine’s desired field-firing needs.

The same can be said of the need for Javelin anti-tank missiles. 8,500 Javelins were delivered to Ukraine at the start of the conflict. They helped stall the Russian invasion. But those missiles are virtually unavailable now. The U.S. is racing to increase Javelin production from 1,000 systems a year to a surge of 2,100. The DoD and Lockheed Martin have stated it will take about 80 months (or 6.5 years) to rebuild U.S. reserves for training and potential future warfare.

These shortage scenarios are representative of production issues that span various weapons systems. Importantly, the same supply chain problems can be found across many commercial industries as well. Common solutions — increasingly founded on AM — are emerging to address both sectors.

For example, metal AM is driving innovation and addressing supply shortages in oil and gas parts manufacturing. The technology is operating fully in space and commercial and private aviation — right now. Rocket turbopumps and nozzles, pumps, fuel tanks and injectors, turbine blades, fins and ducts and inlets, microturbines, combustors, stator rings, and operational ramjets — are among the high-performance AM components and systems already successfully in service. These have met the strenuous benchmarks of performance, durability, speed-of-manufacture, and cost-to-function metrics.

AM and Distributed Manufacturing for Military Parts

This metal AM-printed muzzle brake was created for a defense application. Turnaround time was two weeks versus 18 months for a cast version. 3D printing also paves the way for exploring future design enhancements with minimal investment or time commitment.
Rapid AM conformal tooling, where the geometry of the mold core or insert cooling channels can closely follow the part profile, as above, improves part quality, increases yields, and extends the life of the tool.

Key to spreading out risk, overcoming logistics issues, and speeding up delivery of miliary parts is further expansion of networks of AM-enabled manufacturing sites at U.S. and Allied locations around the globe. As envisioned, these defenseowned, or commercial contract-manufacturing (CM) sites, would ideally contain dedicated equipment for mass production but also deploy AM in a consolidated, post-processing environment of CNCs, lathes, milling, grinding, cutting, heat treating and inspection tools.

Add to these flexible, automated handling systems and there is the opportunity for efficiently combining high-volume production of items such as shells to run alongside the fast-tooling and fast-production capabilities of AM. Because metal AM can turn around hard tooling in three to six weeks (rather than months for casting molds), this would speed delivery of tooling for shells and other high-pressure die-cast (HPDC) military parts. What’s more, AM can provide the added benefit of directly addressing immediate, on-demand fulfilment of shorter lifecycle components such as muzzle brakes, along with helping scale up production of propulsion hardware for higher technology missile systems.

Furthermore — because AM tooling can incorporate conformal-cooling channels that closely match part geometry in mold inserts and cores — it also enhances production by improving yields and extending tooling life. AM is a broad solution for shortening tooling creation times, reducing associated part-production times, increasing yields, and providing for fast, direct part-replacement of military components.

Aside from the benefits of equipping factories with both large-scale traditional and focused AM manufacturing, can AM-driven distributed manufacturing centers bring needed agility to domestic and global military supply chains? This would certainly aid in surge production. It would also help logistics and spread-out geographical risk, creating at the same time greater security and shared economic benefits among allies.

Military Application Potential

An oil and gas pilot project at IMI Critical, a leader in control-valve technology headquartered in the U.K., has proven that distributed manufacturing can work for metal products that experience demanding environments — and which require repeatable quality. The results of this project have the potential to be applied to military applications as well.

In 2022 IMI Critical took a successful field-proven part — previously printed on a single Velo3D metal AM system for a major North American oil and gas customer — and asked Velo3D to produce it at multiple locations around the globe. The goal was to prove that advanced AM could solve issues of repeatability and readiness to achieve true worldwide scalability using the same print file on identical yet separate machines.

The new project used the previously tested choke valve, a high-pressure flow-control device used in water-injection wells to prevent issues with erosion, noise, and vibration. The component is a Velo3D-printed upgrade to a legacy part manufactured through conventional machining and brazing. The optimized redesign helped realize the potential of IMI Critical’ s proprietary drag technology, which manages destructive fluid flow velocities through control valves.

The question was: can this choke valve be made in quantity and on-demand? Can it be made anywhere in the world by qualified contract manufacturers? Can it be made years later digitally without further development and certification? These are the same underlying questions that have essentially driven the DoD to create their Defense Digital Engineering Strategy.

How Velo3D and IMI Did It

Two IMI choke valves (along with material-test coupons) on a build plate after 3D printing with a Velo3D sapphire system in 2021. This valve was printed again at six different locations in a subsequent, distributed-manufacturing project.

The existing Velo3D print file from the 2021 test project, which included the entire instruction set for 3D printing it, was pulled from IMI Critical’s PLM system, and securely sent (as a locked, “golden print file”) to six manufacturing sites across three continents — four in the U.S., one in Asia and one in Europe.

The CMs involved were Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (Austin, Texas), Duncan Machine Products (Duncan, Oklahoma), Knust-Godwin (Katy, Texas), Avaco (South Korea), and Schoeller Bleckmann Oilfield Equipment (Austria). The sixth print run was performed at Velo3D headquarters in California.

After production was carried out at each site, data for the 12 printed parts, two from each of the six locations, was collated and compared, with these results: Mechanical testing and flow testing — along with destructive and non-destructive evaluation of the material coupons — demonstrated that all of the parts, both metallurgically and functionally, met IMI’s design and performance specifications (AML Level 3 per API20S) standards set by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Today, the company is conducting other equally ambitious projects with the Velo3D network of distributed CMs. They know that they have a dependable, scalable supply chain, can duplicate or improve legacy parts, can ramp up or down without recertification, and can carry this business model forward with thousands of low or no inventory, high-stress, unique components.

(Left) Closeup of a 3D-printed ramjet from a recent DoD/LIFT Institute/Lockheed Martin collaborative project. (Right) Small scale, and full-size, ramjets at the production facility. (Image: DoD, LIFT Institute and Lockheed Martin.)

Military Opportunities

Use of advanced 3D printing paves the way for quick, iterative improvements to military designs, many of which may represent legacy parts in need of new features and better performance. Similar to heavy industry, like the oil and gas project above, military components can undergo uncertain demand cycles — with the latter shifting between peacetime and wartime as well. Agility needs to be economically built into planning and execution.

These turbopump engine parts and build plate are fresh out of a Velo3D Sapphire XC AM system. Such large format, 600 mm build-plate printers improve the manufacturing time and economics of 3D metal printing. They can also accommodate different part types from various military systems that use the same material, thereby enhancing agile, as-needed, low-cost manufacturing. (Image: Velo3D and UC Boulder Students Zachary Lesan and Patrick Watson.)

By embracing advanced metal additive manufacturing, ammunition and systems manufacturers can enhance their responsiveness to changing demands and better secure their supply chains against potential threats. The flexibility of additive manufacturing also reduces the need for massive, specialized manufacturing facilities and allows for a diverse range of ammunition parts to be produced more efficiently.

Today, military branches in the U.S. and Europe are actively exploring AM. The results have been positive. With long-term funding in the U.S. from initiatives such as the Organic Industrial Base (OIB) for “modernization, robotic processes, and surge capacity,” of Army vehicles and ammunition, AM stands as a complementary, embedded technology ready to serve within large, dedicated defense facilities. In turn, the growing resource of distributed AM-manufacturing centers — already producing proven aerospace and defense parts and systems — can provide the final ingredient for creating a robust and “surge” ready military supply chain.

This article was written by Matt Karesh, Director of Technical Business Development, Velo3D. For more information, visit here .