Dec 23 2020

3 Ways Additive Manufacturing Supports Federal Agencies

Additive manufacturing offers a way to reduce costs, safeguard supply chains and create custom parts. Here’s how this 3D technology is helping federal agencies build better, faster and smarter.

To say that additive manufacturing is a growing industry is an understatement. The industry is expected to grow to $35 billion by 2027. Already, advances in technology have reduced the size and cost of key additive components and the industry is on track for 14 percent growth year over year.

Government support of additive manufacturing is also on the rise as agencies leverage this layer-by-layer approach to reduce turnaround times, improve operations and shore up supply chain security.

What Is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing, often known as 3D printing, is helping federal agencies build better, faster and smarter.

Additive manufacturing leverages computer-aided design (CAD) software or integrated object scanners to create digital images of desired parts or products. Connected printing hardware then builds the desired object, layer by layer, effectively “adding” material bit by bit to create the finished product.

Traditional manufacturing, meanwhile, uses the opposite approach — material is removed via processes like carving, machining or milling to produce the end result. This creates a twofold concern: Some material is inevitably wasted during the process, and the output object isn’t fully optimized.

Consider a car door. Traditional manufacturing processes have largely automated the creation of these parts: Component materials are deftly shaped by robotic systems into finished products. The challenge? Even using advanced algorithms to make doors both as light and strong as possible, physical properties present limitations — if the structural integrity of components is compromised to reduce total weight, for example, the rejoined piece will never be as strong as the original.

Additive manufacturing solves this problem by depositing rather than removing material. As a result, a car door or other designs can be optimized for both strength and weight while ensuring the end result is seamless and consistent.

While first-generation 3D printers were cumbersome, slow and costly, advances in 3D imaging software, printing processes and material variety have made them viable options for public and private industries.

What Is the Additive Manufacturing Process?

As 3D Hubs notes, “producing a digital model is the first step in the additive manufacturing process.” This is accomplished through CAD.

CAD, Autodesk notes, “is technology for design and technical documentation, which replaces manual drafting with an automated process.” CAD is an engineering technique, and not just a drawing tool or a suite of software, Jason Schuler, a robotics engineer in the exploration research and technology programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tells FedTech.

Instead, CAD can be seen as a design philosophy or technique that lets users go from a whiteboard concept to a digital model, in which the fit and function of something can be manipulated, all the way to a final product.

The next critical phase is the conversion of a CAD model into a stereolithography (STL), which uses polygons to describe the surface of an object. 3D Hubs reports:

Once a STL file has been generated, the file is imported into a slicer program. This program takes the STL file and converts it into G-code. G-code is a numerical control (NC) programming language. It is used in computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) to control automated machine tools (including CNC machines and 3D printers). The slicer program also allows the designer to customize the build parameters including supportlayer height, and part orientation.

From there, 3D Hubs notes, print materials are loaded into 3D printers and printing, often automated, can begin. Some additive manufacturing tools require the removal of prints and post-processing.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: What is a digital twin and how is it used in government?

Additive Manufacturing for the VA Builds Prototypes, Prosthetics

For Dr. Beth Ripley, director of the VHA 3D Printing Network at VA Health Care Systems, additive manufacturing is driving the development of five functional “buckets”:

  • Assistive technology: From 3D printed solutions for brain injuries to fishing rod adapters, assistive technology is “custom designed for veterans to interact maximally with their environment.”
  • Pre-surgical planning: Leveraging additive manufacturing makes it possible to “extract and create a near-perfect replica and then put it into the hands of the patient and the surgeon to plan the perfect course.”
  • Orthotics and prosthetics: This specialized field focuses on the development and creation of custom-built lower limbs or upper extremities.
  • Custom dental solutions: 3D-printed dental solutions improve patient outcomes and reduce the risk of complications.
  • Bio-printing custom implants: As noted by Ripley, these custom implants are designed to help veterans achieve a sense of normalcy. Additive manufacturing paves the way for “next-gen solutions that add in things like electronics or sensors to provide additional information.”

There are many benefits to additive manufacturing for the VA. “Added complexity is free with 3D printing,” Ripley says. “While tooling in traditional manufacturing ramps up costs very quickly, this isn’t the case for 3D printing. Instead, you just need the design.” As a result, it’s possible to build complex, strong and lightweight structures without increasing costs.

The Veterans Health Administration uses 3D printing to solve a wide range of problems.

Ripley also points to the use of additive manufacturing to help doctors provide physical representations of more abstract medical concepts. “Doctors aren’t very creative in describing things,” she says, “so it’s often done in reference to a vegetable — pea-sized, walnut-sized, watermelon-sized. But what does that really mean? Physical representation gives autonomy back to the patient and lets them advocate for themselves.”

For Ripley, additive manufacturing isn’t simply a performance-improving process but a potential opportunity. “While 3D printing is a manufacturing technology that we’re bringing into the walls of the hospital,” she says, “what we’re really doing is creating a new profession.”

READ MORE: Find out how federal IT leaders can adapt to accelerating technological change.

Parts Manufacturing Drives 3D Printing for the Army

In the Army, additive manufacturing is now being used by agencies including the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) and the Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) to improve operational readiness and increase supply chain effectiveness.
According to Phil Burton, program manager of advanced manufacturing at TACOM, the agency has two strategic goals.

“First, augment supply chain responsiveness in the strategic support area today leveraging the capability of the Rock Island Arsenal Center of Excellence, and second, empower forward advance manufacturing capability of the future Army at the tactical point of need in the operational and tactical support area as technology develops, reducing the sustainment tail while increasing readiness,” he says.

Additive manufacturing offers the opportunity to do both. In practice, this means that TACOM is “adopting advanced manufacturing incrementally with the vision to expand indefinitely.” To determine which parts take priority, TACOM uses a set of three groups or “echelons.”

  • Component echelon: According to Burton, these parts are “select readiness drivers, are obsolete, have no technical data packages, have no source of supply and are of immediate need.”
  • System echelon: System-echelon parts are those with historical demand but are not currently on backorder; their 3D data will be obtained and “vaulted” for future use.
  • Program echelon: These parts are “being identified to support modernization and future Transition to Sustainment requirements by our Program Executive Offices (PEO) partners via contract language and new programs.”

On the GVSC side, meanwhile, teams are “focused on trying to use additive manufacturing to get after components that either have a very long lead time or are stuck without a source,” according to N. Joseph Kott III, GVSC branch chief of materials: additive manufacturing.

Army 3D printing

U.S. Army Pfc. Jimmy Roe, assigned to Bravo Company, 299th Battalion Support Brigade, Dagger Brigade, operates the Lulzbot Taz 2 Hard Plastic 3D Printer that is a part of the Rapid Fabrication via Additive Manufacturing on the Battlefield at Amberg Training Area, Hohenfels, Germany, May 4, 2018. Photo by Spc. Elliott Page, U.S. Army

“Given that AM doesn’t rely on tooling,” he says, “a part can be produced at a lower volume and still make sense to pursue since it will not require costly tools for low volume applications.”

As noted by Brandon Pender, associate director of the materials division at GVSC, “additive manufacturing will allow for repair and part creation directly at the point of need, which ‘could’ eliminate much of the inefficiencies and cost of a long logistic tail and allow expeditionary units to remain far ahead of supporting rear echelons.”

Going forward, Pender points to “continued hyper growth in this tech sector for the Army.” He notes that “it just makes too much sense for systems that are produced and sustained in low volumes with high variability. The team is considering the purchase of several new pieces of AM equipment this spring and is eager to start prototype printing sustainment parts and redesigned/optimized parts.”

Smithsonian Enables 3D Printing of Historical Artifacts

While medical and military applications of additive manufacturing offer substantive benefits for customized veterans’ care and streamlined army operations, these arms-length advantages can be harder to appreciate for average citizens.

Efforts such as the Smithsonian’s 3D digitization program are now looking to bridge the gap between specialized and general applications. Thanks to the work of a small group of technologists under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Digitization Program Office, it’s now possible for anyone to download the 3D printing specifications for anything from a bust of Abraham Lincoln to a piece of North Atlantic coral to a full-scale replica of the Apollo 11 command module.

While it’s unlikely that most Smithsonian site visitors will have the necessary materials on hand for many of the larger 3D patterns, there’s value in the patterns themselves: Digitization makes it possible to discover and delve into the underlying structure of these historically relevant forms, in effect allowing interested observers to deconstruct what they’re seeing into component parts and pave the way for the next generation of outside-the-box brilliance.

As costs decrease and performance ramps up, the additive manufacturing equation is easy to solve. From customized, 3D printed healthcare to just-in-time military component production and accessible additive designs, this layer-by-layer technology can help reduce costs, add value and multiply productivity across federal agencies.

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