The military has a longstanding interest in additive manufacturing. From functional parts for fighter jets to accessories for soldiers in the field, 3D printing is used in various ways as a fast and affordable R&D tool.
Here are some additive manufacturing projects across the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines, across various countries:
3D printing PPE for the NHS
The Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force turned to additive manufacturing to make PPE for the NHS during the pandemic. Warrant Officer Scott ‘Barney’ Barnett, who works at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, made 3,000 masks in a matter of months, while the Royal Air Force fabricated mask clips that eased wearer discomfort.
Composite engineering in the U.S. Air Force
The U.S. Air Force has an Advanced Composites Office, which designs and engineers parts for fighter jets and other aircraft. 3D printing with Markforged printers enables the U.S. Air Force to produce parts in small batches. 3D printing also enables global collaboration, connecting printers to create parts in various locations.
3D printing a Black Hawk helicopter
In 2020, The Army Materiel Command (AMCOM) began working with a team from Wichita State University to digitally scan a Black Hawk helicopter for 3D printing. They aim to additively manufacture the Black Hawk’s body and other aircraft within the next decade, moving production in-house.
Aircraft tools and prototypes with Royal Netherlands Air Force
The Royal Netherlands Air Force uses additive manufacturing to make spare parts, tools and fixtures for aircraft maintenance. They fabricate tools for specialised jobs, going from design to physical part on the same day. They use Ultimaker 3D printers and print with functional plastics that match the performance of aluminium.
Manufacturing lightweight mission components
A significant area of research for the U.S. Army is high-strength magnesium, which they are developing with 3D printing. They are working with a team at the University of Central Florida to develop a lattice structure that reduces weight while increasing strength, allowing the Army to fabricate small-batch field components.
Single-piece hulls for military ground vehicles
The U.S. DEVCOM Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) is funding an ambitious project to make the world’s largest metal 3D printer. They aim to manufacture single-piece hulls for military ground vehicles. When built, it will print metal items up to 20 ft (W) x 20 ft (T) x 75 ft (L), a truly enormous scale.
3D printing plastic field components out in the field
British Army engineers in South Sudan turned to 3D printing to manufacture high-strength components when their supply chain had problems. The regiment started printing brackets and joints for a humanitarian mission involving building a new hospital. Many of the parts were made in less than 12 hours.