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3D Printing is Revolutionising Spare Part Production in Land Defence: Here’s How It Works

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

When we talk about "innovation" in manufacturing, the word can frequently veer toward abstraction, implying nascent concepts, novel methods, and novel perspectives. However, how it is used in the defense sector is a completely different story. Here, embracing innovation refers to advancing tangible change where implementation could have an immediate impact.

In 2023, there will be a very real war. Fortunately, the creative opportunities made possible by additive manufacturing are having just this effect.

Considering the ongoing conflict with Russia, the UK recently announced its intention to donate 14 iconic Challenger 2 tanks to the Ukrainian military. However, reaping the rewards of the apparatus goes beyond becoming familiar with it.

The Challenger 2 is only compatible with UK-based parts, as is the case with many military vehicles and their respective countries of creation, making maintenance of the vehicles' functionality a challenge in and of itself. The military cannot afford to waste time, energy, or efficiency searching for replacements for damaged components.

Here, 3D printing enters the picture. Production of AM spare parts for the military overcomes obstacles and adds value with an unmatched novelty and efficiency.

The journey of a spare part is followed in this article from identification to production and implementation, demonstrating the ability of additive manufacturing to guarantee accuracy and part proficiency at every stage.

Scoping the Market

A Challenger 2 tank's component broke, disrupting a day's worth of work, and the damage calls for either quick repair or more stringent restoration. What steps should military personnel take next?

The first step is to determine how integral the broken part is to the entire vehicle after retrieving information via the relevant Nato Stock Number (NSN) linked to the broken part, allowing access to an intact version. Identifying whether a component serves a safety-critical function, such as a link in the tank's tracks, or a non-safety-critical function, such as a mount for a headlight, clarifies the urgency of implementing a replacement. The component at issue in this fictitious scenario is a link, and its speedy restoration will be crucial.

Searching the market for a solution will probably yield ineffective results.

The ability to produce the necessary part may frequently no longer be available, or the company may have changed the focus of their services and capabilities since the part was first manufactured. In fact, original part suppliers are frequently no longer in business. For example, a family-run business may have decided to permanently close its doors, or its last employee may have retired.

Additionally, if a supplier is found, several new complications are likely to emerge. A minimum order quantity may necessitate extra payment for the one part that is needed, as well as a string of additional hassles, like planning storage solutions or throwing away the extras in an inefficient manner. Alternatively, given the remoteness and frequently-confidential nature of military sites, the lead time for delivery is probably too long.

The owner decides to turn to additive manufacturing when external providers are unable to provide a solution. AM technologies enable operators to firmly take matters into their own hands because they are quick, adaptable, and affordable.

CAD Generation

After choosing 3D printing as a means of resolving the issue, the next bottleneck is the absence of a CAD file for the necessary part.

Due to intellectual property laws, access to digital models of military components is frequently either restricted or nonexistent. In either case, a different strategy will be required to convert the physical object into a digital format.

Once more, the easiest course is to accept personal accountability for creating this essential resource. Reverse engineering a pre-existing part can be done in a variety of ways, even though manually measuring the part and redesigning it on a CAD design service is feasible.

One method that makes use of a higher level of efficiency is 3D scanning. To accomplish this, a portable scanner is used to completely record all of an artifact's dimensions, producing a digital impression that can be immediately uploaded into a CAD-supporting platform. Using this scan as a starting point, the part would be digitally modelled, incorporating non-external dimensions that were inaccessible during scanning into the final design. The accuracy of this process is being continually fine-tuned by technological advancements, with products like Hexagon's small-footprint SmartScan 3D light scanner offering quick object digitization and a compact, lightweight design that makes it suitable for use in difficult environments.

The benefits of creating a CAD version of a part extend beyond its use in production, as it preserves the part's specifications in a digital format for future reference.

Digital storage systems, such as AMFG's Digital Warehouse functionality, which unlock quick recovery of individual designs, can significantly speed up CAD retrieval and submission for production while also prioritizing security and allowing for user access restrictions. Importantly, this feature contributes speed and ease of use when spare parts are most desperately needed.

Printing and Certifying

Because of its adaptability, 3D printing has gained prominence across all industries, inspiring manufacturers to think outside the constraints imposed by traditional manufacturing.

Although its use in military contexts deviates from the norm and necessitates strict adherence to product specifications, AM still exhibits its benefits in this more stringent setting.

Prior to printing, a number of crucial factors need to be taken into account. Engineers, for example, must decide whether using the exact same material as the original part, such as keeping the same metal grade, is required. If it is discovered that this is the case, X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF), a method for determining the precise elemental composition of scanned objects, may be carried out.

After the part has been printed, post-processing operations, such as washing, polishing, or adding additional features, like machining a flat surface for a joint, can make the piece even more similar to the original.

To ensure the quality of the printed part, post-production inspection must be just as meticulous.

Examining parts for flaws is essential because there is no room for faulty parts to function, especially in defense. This is especially important when using additive technologies because flaws can easily go undetected if hidden within one of the part's many internal layers when a part is built entirely "from scratch" rather than being removed from a pre-certified material.

X-rays can once more be used, and CT scanning can be advantageous in providing visual access to the "inside" of a part. This enables the detection of undesirable phenomena in metal AM, such as air pockets or spatter-related defect formation.

However, CT scanning is very expensive. Instead, many people turn to printed part weights, which can frequently accurately indicate constitutional similarity or disparity when comparing densities with the original part. In this case, where CT scanning is not used, putting in place high quality process control is essential to enable part safety certification.

This is a fairly common practice. Other procedures, however, depart from the AM norm in a more striking way.

Building on the significance of maintaining similarity, the printed component should strive to match the original's level of quality. Its use in defense tells a different story than that of conventional additive manufacturing, where generative design is almost always focused on improving part quality exponentially while checking off ever-higher strength to weight ratios.

When reintroduced to the vehicle, a part that outperforms its predecessor in terms of quality runs the risk of catalyzing subsequent failures. One track link's disproportionate strength compared to the others can pose a threat to tip the structure off balance and alter the mechanisms that it relies on to function. This can cause other components to perform poorly or even break, ranging from smaller, nearby components to larger ones that are more difficult or expensive to repair.

With additive manufacturing, it is easier to keep tight control over a part's mechanical characteristics; in this case, the technology's adaptability satisfies the production's need for extreme specificity.

Anticipating the Future

All that is left to do is transport the printed and fully certified part to the installation site. Due to the complexity of military transit, AMFG's automated resource planning, which is part of the solution's auto scheduling functionality, can significantly simplify and streamline this process.

Our hypothetical Challenger 2 is now fully fitted and prepared for flight once more.

Beyond the present, however, each step in this process has aided in strengthening operations in the event of an unheard-of return of disruption. Now that the data gathered during production can be stored, it is possible to strengthen backup plans for emergencies.

By building up a backlog of CAD files and setting up AM facilities on military bases, operators will become more accustomed to replacing damaged parts and managing 3D printed replacements. With shorter lead times, prepared resources, and simple delivery to the points of need, higher urgency situations are given a greater sense of control.

Additionally essential to looping up each step and facilitating the change from one process to another is AM MES & workflow automation software. From automatically scheduling print jobs to giving an overview of post processing and quality control, AMFG's end-to-end software significantly reduces the amount of manual labor needed for operations.

In time-sensitive military contexts, creating a smooth transition from task to task is essential; additive manufacturing is incomparably suited for the job because it thrives in volatile situations, remote locations, and extremely specific production requirements.

All the Difference

It can be easy to forget how revolutionary additive manufacturing's core principle is during an action-packed market, bursting with innovations, partnerships, and milestones achieved. Any digitally created design, down to a T, can be created quickly and economically in physical form.

The most important benefits of AM are highlighted by its uses in military contexts. The ability to produce any item, anywhere, and at any time from the straightforward stimulus of a digital file is game changing for a sector that heavily relies on adaptability.

Unprecedented events in recent years have weakened our supply chains' fortitude, whether because of a widespread virus outbreak or the persistence and fluctuating effects of war. However, the commercialization of additive manufacturing is arming businesses, organizations, and even armies with the tools they need to stay grounded and fight against the unknowable.

For more information on AMFG, please contact your local Dynagraph representative.

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