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News | Aug. 13, 2015

3D printing could help DLA cut costs, improve parts support

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

The Defense Logistics Agency is evaluating whether 3D printing, a process commercial manufacturers use to produce everything from prosthetics to airplane parts, could lower the cost and reduce lead times for hard-to-source, obsolete and back-ordered parts.

Companies like Boeing and General Electric already use 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to produce polymer, plastic and some metal parts. As they continue discovering the potential and boundaries of the emerging production process, DLA’s research and development team is working with a contractor to identify by September the first 10 items for which it will pursue 3D modeling and manufacturing, said Kelly Morris, chief of research and development for DLA Logistics Operations.

“This could dramatically change the way DLA provides parts. In the future, if we had an additive manufacturing machine and everything that goes with it at the Air Force’s logistics center in Oklahoma, we could send them the 3D model and 3D technical data package for a particular part, and they could make it right there on site,” she said.

Additive manufacturing can reduce the time it takes customers to get parts from days to minutes and eliminates the need for transportation and storage fees.

Among the parts being considered for 3D modeling are interior panels for aircraft, bolts, fittings and ductwork, said Tony Monteleone, DLA Logistics Operations’ program manager for additive manufacturing.

In additive manufacturing, a laser-powered, 3D printer lays down successive layers of material, such as plastic or metal, to create functional parts and products. There is little human intervention, unlike traditional methods of manufacturing that follow a subtractive process, which requires machines like drills and mills to cut and shape material.

“If you’re forging something, you’re taking a piece of metal and heating it up, then hammering or smashing it into the design you want. There’s almost always excess material that needs to be trimmed away,” Morris said, adding that additive manufacturing leaves little or no waste although some machining or milling may be needed to finish the product.

The process starts with a 3D technical data package, or digital blueprint, that depicts all of an item’s specifications. For the initial parts DLA intends to have additively manufactured, DLA will competitively source with subcontractors that already have the capability. Those contractors will establish 3D data specifically for additive manufacturing from existing 2D drawings or reverse engineering, create part models, then produce parts for testing.

Engineering support activities for each of the military services are responsible for testing and certifying that additively manufactured parts meet structural standards, Morris said.

“Getting the technical data and parts tested for quality is a big challenge, and only the services have that capability,” she continued. “The testing for metals is especially difficult, but we have to know that a part is structurally sound before we can put it on an aircraft or ship.”

After that, DLA will have to work with service engineers and logisticians to figure out how to best incorporate additive manufacturing into ordering and repair processes.

“For example, do the services want us to send the technical data package and 3D model to the location where the repair work is being done, or do they want us to find vendors who can take our 3D data and make the item on a competitive basis?” Morris said. “Also, should we place additive manufacturing equipment with the services and, if so, where?”

And just because a part can be produced additively and meet military standards doesn’t mean DLA should forgo traditional manufacturing. Other factors include the cost of generating 3D data, additive manufacturing costs, quantities and whether a part made additively has the same lifecycle as one produced with traditional methods, Morris added.

“By knowing what the costs are, we can do a comparative analysis and make informed decisions on what a proper approach is for each of these parts. We want to know what it costs to buy the part from industry without buying a technical data package and what it costs to build it using additive manufacturing, assuming we own the data,” she said.

Defense Department officials have become increasingly more interested in additive manufacturing as the department works to increase innovation and embrace new technologies. In July, DLA Logistics Operations Director Navy Rear Adm. Vincent Griffith outlined the agency’s progress in additive manufacturing to David Berteau, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and material readiness.

“It’s important to us that DoD implements additive manufacturing standards and policies. The services are doing their own thing right now because the technology is still very much in the research and development phase, but we need uniform practices throughout DoD to make this really work,” Morris said.

DLA is helping to shape DoD’s additive manufacturing program by creating a repeatable process to identify parts that are suitable for additive manufacturing, Monteleone added.

“No one else is doing that, and the services are excited about it,” he said. “We’re also reaching out to commercial companies to see what their capabilities and concerns are.”

The Navy is already using additive manufacturing aboard ships to print items ranging from plastic syringes to oil caps, according to news reports. And Army researchers are investigating whether food like pizza included in field rations could be made via 3D printing.

“This will eventually become a normal manufacturing process for commercial industry and the military,” Morris said.