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The growth of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is emerging as a “game changer” for the military sector, offering innovative opportunities, particularly in the development of hypersonic weapons. Keith DeVries, Deputy Director of the Manufacturing Technology Program at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, highlighted the advances in additive manufacturing and its potential applications in the creation of complex components. However, he also warned that the use of this technology should be intentional and limited, complementing rather than replacing traditional techniques.
Additive Manufacturing: A Game-Changer in the Military Sector
Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, is enjoying a meteoric rise in the military sector. According to Keith DeVries, Deputy Director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program, this technology is revolutionizing the way the U.S. military develops and produces its systems. He calls it a “game changer”, and highlights the multiple advantages it offers.
Complex components in the blink of an eye
One of the main applications of additive manufacturing in the military field is the ability to rapidly create complex components for new systems. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes, which can be limited in their ability to produce complex shapes, additive manufacturing enables parts with sophisticated shapes to be produced with great precision.
DeVries explains that additive manufacturing has evolved over the years, from creating objects in brittle polymers to using high-entropy metals, offering high mechanical strength and increased durability. This advance has been made possible by the use of lasers to melt metals capable of withstanding high temperatures, paving the way for the creation of even more complex shapes.
The striking example of hypersonic weapons
Hypersonic weapons are a striking example of the impact of additive manufacturing. The scramjet propulsion systems used in these weapons require complex chambers that are difficult to produce using traditional methods. However, additive manufacturing offers an innovative solution to this challenge.
Thanks to additive manufacturing, scramjet components can be made from high-temperature metals, eliminating the need for complex welds or brazed joints. The latter have to be rigorously tested to guarantee their strength, which adds considerable time to the manufacturing process. By contrast, components manufactured by 3D printing, without these joints, are exempt from these additional checks.
DeVries points out that this technology enables the creation of components of unprecedented complexity, surpassing the limits of traditional material subtraction methods. However, he insists that the development of hypersonic weapons is still in the rapid prototyping phase, indicating the continued growth potential of additive manufacturing in this field.
The Coexistence of Traditional and Additive Manufacturing
Although additive manufacturing offers undeniable advantages, Keith DeVries reminds us that traditional manufacturing techniques, such as casting and forging, retain their place in the production process. He warns against blindly adopting additive manufacturing and encourages the intentional and limited use of this technology.
It expresses a willingness to consider additive manufacturing as an additional tool in the defense toolbox, to be applied only where it brings real added value. This considered approach aims to ensure that the technology integrates seamlessly with traditional manufacturing methods, rather than replacing them.
Consequences of Additive Manufacturing in Defense
The rise of additive manufacturing in the military sector paves the way for significant changes and notable consequences.
- Acceleration of Hypersonic Weapon Development: Additive manufacturing significantly accelerates the development of hypersonic weapons by reducing the time needed to manufacture complex components. This strengthens the ability of armed forces to respond rapidly to emerging threats.
- Reduced production costs: By eliminating the need for complex welding processes and additional testing, additive manufacturing can potentially reduce the production costs of weapon systems, enabling financial resources to be allocated to other critical areas of defense.
- Flexibility and adaptability: The ability to create tailor-made components using additive manufacturing offers unrivalled flexibility in military system design. Adjustments and improvements can be made quickly to meet changing needs.
- Human Risk Reduction: By automating certain manufacturing steps, additive manufacturing can potentially reduce workers’ exposure to hazardous environments, contributing to employee safety.
Additive manufacturing represents a significant advance for the military sector, offering considerable advantages in the development of hypersonic weapons and other complex systems. However, it is essential to maintain a balance between additive manufacturing and traditional methods, using the technology intentionally to maximize its added value.
The future of defense lies in a judicious combination of these two approaches, taking advantage of the flexibility and speed of additive manufacturing while preserving the expertise and reliability of traditional methods. This symbiosis of old and new could well shape the defense landscape for years to come, strengthening the armed forces’ ability to meet the complex challenges of the modern world.
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