Although the US Army has been dabbling in 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) for some time, a prototype printer, commissioned from 3D Systems in South Carolina for $15 million by the US Army, can create objects up to a volume of 1 by 1 by 0.6 metres.
The giant, high-speed 3D printer which is producing large, ultra-strong steel components and weapons for the US Army, may also have non-military uses.
3D Systems states it is the largest, fastest and most precise steel printer ever made, big enough to print entire parts for military vehicles, such as hatches.
The Army also had to develop a new kind of 3D-printing “ink”, or feedstock, which was a big limitation. As the Army needs to print things with high strength, for example armoured parts, they used a nickel-alloy steel called AF-96 that was originally developed by the US Air Force for bunker-busting bombs and adapted it to the printing method, which lays down layers of powdered metal and fuses them with a laser.
The resulting 3D-printed alloy turned out to be 50% stronger than the same material when cast or forged, thanks to its microstructure.
A prototype printer is due to be fully operational in the next few months. And, if it is successful, steel parts could be routinely printed within two to three years.
Such printers could also produce instant spares near the front line, which would make it easier to repair broken, old or obsolete kit.
The Army Secretary adopted an advanced manufacturing policy in October 2019 to enhance the supply chain and encourage development.
Brading, T. (2020) 3D steel printing at forefront of modernization, readiness. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.army.mil/article/234017/3d_steel_printing_at_forefront_of_modernization_readiness. [Accessed: 05 October, 2020].
Judson, J. (2020) US Army developing process for using 3D printing at depots and in the field. Availabkle from World Wide Web: https://www.defensenews.com/land/2020/02/04/us-army-developing-process-for-using-3d-printing-at-depots-and-in-the-field/. [Accessed: 05 October, 2010].