A Tactical Advantage? Additive Manufacturing in the US Military

How is the United States military utilizing 3-D printing and what is the way forward?

“Our future operating environment is going to be very kinetic and dangerous because we don’t necessarily know what we’re going into… the more we can pull Marines out of those potentially dangerous situations—whether it’s active combat or natural disaster—and place robotics there instead, it helps us accomplish the mission more efficiently.”  US Marine Captain Matthew Friedell of the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) articulates the promise of robots using additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing, for military operations. Friedell’s team, along with US Army personnel, printed a proof-of-concept barracks structure for use in combat zones in August 2018[1] known as “Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures” (ACES).[2] While this construction is certainly promising, 3-D printing also has an untapped potential to solve logistics problems in austere environments that service members routinely experience during combat deployments. Currently, convoys often will take multiple spare parts for vehicles in case of break-downs. The promise of 3-D printing is that instead of bringing a supply of different spare parts, and attempting to forecast which will be needed during a mission, a maintainer could print the needed parts on demand, potentially reducing required storage space for spare parts, cost, and mission planning time.

Additive manufacturing has great promise for military operations largely on two factors: costs are a surmountable barrier when your budget is (relatively) unlimited, and the need for weight and space reduction is very real as front line units work towards greater independence from long supply trains.  Many commanders complain that logistics often drive operations, when, in reality, it ought to be the other way around, and units are looking for ways to improve a soldier or marine’s lethality by lightening combat loads.  In the short term, many US military offices are seeking to address this goal. Friedell’s team at the MCSC is only one of such; the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (USAERDC) also worked on the ACES project and has developed a 3-D printed grenade launcher, and the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division’s Disruptive Technologies Lab has worked with the Oak Ridge National Laboratories to develop a 3-D printed submarine hull.[3] We are seeing the benefits of additive manufacturing already in operational units, where the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 was able to complete a successful flight of a F-35B Lightning II plane that had a replacement plastic bumper on its landing gear door which was fabricated by a 3-D printer.[4]


The Way Forward


While projects like ACES are major steps forward, the military’s advances in additive manufacturing will likely be hampered by an organizational problem it has long struggled with – the siloing of its efforts within individual branches of the service. While “jointness” (the term used to describe coordinated lines of effort across two or more branches of the military) has increased drastically since the National Security Act of 1947 which federated the branches into one Department of Defense, efforts on research, development, and material acquisitions remain largely separate. In the short term, more joint projects like ACES between the MCSC and USAERDC will further additive manufacturing experimentation. In the medium term, maintenance regulations need to shift across branches to allow for innovation in logisitics like at the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121. Professional developmental courses ought to preach innovation to future commanders willing to take calculated and measured risks such as using 3-D printed parts during operations. The spirit of innovation ought to be ingrained parts of command philosophies, and senior commanders should push their junior leaders to come forward with new ideas and be willing to implement best practices. Long term, consolidation of the multitude of innovation offices within the branches may be a way forward. Some branches are already making moves in this direction, as shown by the recent creation of the US Army’s Futures Command, which will consolidate most of the Army’s innovation and acquisitions research, development, and testing missions.


Questions Remain


While logistics and maintenance process improvement advantages are relatively straightforward, questions remain in product development. Can 3-D printing provide life-saving medical implants on the battlefield? Can ammunition be manufactured by a 3-D printer at a sustainable rate for austere outposts in Afghanistan, where supplies are delivered infrequently? What is the limit of reliability and risk commanders are willing to accept for critical parts such as a rotor blades or engine compressor fan blades? Can 3-D printing fill these gaps?

Additive manufacturing holds great potential for the US military and select offices within the branches are innovating with 3-D printing. As with all things new in the military, that potential will require unlocking through greater coordination, experimentation, and development across the branches to deliver logistics and maintenance process improvement (and potentially more) to our service members fighting on the front lines.


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[1] and Banner Photo: United States Marine Corps, “MCSC Teams with Marines to Build World’s First Continuous 3-D Printed Concrete Barracks,” https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1611532/mcsc-teams-with-marines-to-build-worlds-first-continuous-3d-printed-concrete-ba/, accessed November 2018.

[2] 3DPrint.com, “US Army Demonstrates Latest 3D Printing, 3D Scanning, Drone Technologies,” https://3dprint.com/210011/army-technology-demonstration/, accessed November 2018.

[3] Army Technology, “Made to Measure, the Next Generation of Military 3D Printing,” https://www.army-technology.com/features/made-measure-next-generation-military-3d-printing/, accessed November 2018.

[4] United States Marine Corps, “3-D Printer-Capable Marines with 31st MEU Print Replacement Part for F-35B,” https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1497871/3-d-printer-capable-marines-with-31st-meu-print-replacement-part-for-f-35b/, accessed November 2018.


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Student comments on A Tactical Advantage? Additive Manufacturing in the US Military

  1. This is a great read, thanks for sharing. I had never thought about the use of 3D printing in the military, but it seems like its use cases can add significant value. My only worry with this would be if it becomes too reliant on this, leaving it to risk if the machines were to falter, there were a power outage, etc. However, I do see how this can bring meaningful benefits, and I am glad you wrote about it. Thanks!

  2. I didn’t realize that the quality of 3D printed materials was on par with traditional materials production methods to the point that it could be used in these extreme use cases (hopefully that Marine F-35 with the 3D printed bumper wasn’t the one that crashed last month). I need to learn more about the raw materials that have to go along with the printers in these processes, but it seems like a huge advantage for deployed forces. Very interesting, especially in light of the issues with government acquisition and production that we’ve discussed.

  3. Thanks for the article. I see a lot of similarities between the military’s deployment of AM technology and in rail (similar to your comment on my post). It appears that both are experimenting with AM around the low-risk edges of heavy equipment (e.g. on the bumper of an F-35), but are not yet willing to put those parts into safety critical parts of the plane. It will be fascinating to see how AM technology advances to the point where these parts can be integrated into the “core” part of heavy equipment.

    Looking into where AM can be deployed most rapidly, areas like 3D printed barracks, and other opportunities to reduce the cost and logistics requirements of rapidly setting up operations in combat zones appear to be the easiest to adopt in the near term. Once the military and other organizations can get used to deploying the technology consistently in non-critical environments, perhaps comfort and expertise will build to the point where they will deploy the technology for critical parts.

    One thought on the consolidation of innovation arms of the military: because each section of the military has different operational and logistical requirements and could possible benefit from AM in different ways, does consolidating these departments concern you from an innovation perspective? Could it be better to keep them separate, but focus on coordination and sharing best practices/findings of AM, so that while each organization can be learning AM, they can separately decide how to best apply the technology for the specific military branch/operation they are tied to? I am concerned that consolidation could suppress AM use in innovative applications from this perspective.

  4. Your analysis is extremely interesting and you provided really compelling examples of ways that the military is already successfully implementing additive manufacturing. I found it particularly interesting that many of the hurdles for a path forward arise due to human factors, cultural willingness to collaborate, and a mental shift towards encouraging innovation. While the military certainly seems to have its own uniquely strong culture, this challenging human aspect is widespread and apparent in other organizations and industries as well. I’m hopeful that as the quantity of successes achieved with additive manufacturing increases, so will the level of trust in technology and encouragement towards innovation.

  5. Lieutenant Dan (guess you’re a captain now), nicely done on this article. I think you raise some interesting questions about the use of 3d printing here as a substitute measure in military operations. I definitely see how it can provide some benefits as you described in terms of using machines instead of real people in highly dangerous situations (perhaps detecting IEDs) or even efficiencies on costs for replacement parts. Military spending is so high that anything that can be done to make those costs more reasonable I think would be a good thing. I think the biggest question outstanding on the use of these 3d printing outputs is how reliable are they? Are they actually the same quality as what we currently use? I’d never want to endanger our troops with inferior equipment just because they cost less but as long as they have the same or similar quality, it seems like a great use case for it.

  6. This is a very interesting topic, especially given the life-or-death implications of the technology. Given the usefulness of the tech, but also keeping in mind the bureaucratic and “siloed” nature of the military/government in general, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the likelihood of your suggested organizational improvements actually being implemented in the ideal timeframes.

    To potentially provide some thoughts on your questions, I think the technological advancements will likely be there (perhaps in the longer-term) to allow medical implants and ammunition to be effectively transported to the battlefield. However, there is significant uncertainty in my mind as to what is the limit of reliability and risk commanders are willing to accept. If anything, the willingness to accept will likely lag the technological advancement, but maybe appropriately so given the seriousness of the matter.

  7. It is interesting how additive manufacturing can be a tactical advantage in so many different areas from supply chain, medical or actual warfare. As a civilian that has never had experience in the military, I forget how may other components are crucial in deploying military strategies. Given that technological development has allowed additive manufacturing to expand to other materials, it will be interesting to see to what extent it can be deployed in the field of battle essentially developing self-sustaining units that are not as susceptible to being cut off by enemy attacks or physical barriers.

  8. Nice article! I agree that we need to find some source of innovation at the front line and develop a way to move the ball forward more rapidly. My concern with innovation AND implementation at the front line is a lack of technical knowledge and a lack of a sterile test environment. I think a good idea would be to create a mechanism for front line operators/maintenance folks to submit ideas for innovation that could be tested and implemented across all similar platforms. Perhaps there could be an incentive system that encouraged individual (and their units) to contribute ideas.

  9. This is a really interesting application of 3D printing. It makes a lot of sense to have the capabilities to produce supplies in remote areas with infrequent resupplies. It certainly helps that the military has essentially an unlimited budget. To answer one of your questions, I would think that the tolerance for reliability would be low across the military and could potentially limit the adoption of the technology on a broad scale across the military.

  10. This was a great read! Thank you for sharing insight into how the military is making use of additive manufacturing today and listing some of the possibilities for its use in the future. If the technology advances to a point where front line soldiers are able to utilize 3D printing for additional ammunition / weapons, I wonder how the army would think about ensuring that technology does not fall into the hands of enemies who do not have the ability to innovate with the resources of the U.S. military? How do you weigh that against the benefits that having such technology on the front lines would provide?

  11. Great read Dan! I think this perfectly ties with how the military has been at the forefront of developing and applying many innovations in the past. However, two things that came to my mind were the aspects around reliability and safety. Unlike many other industries, the scope focus on perfection has to be to the dot when it comes to dealing with sensitive situations, and it would be interesting to see how long we have to reach the requisite levels. Another challenge is definitely around the security, i.e. ensuring that the technology remains proprietary as is the case with human soldiers. On the positive note, if this becomes a major success in the military, it will pave way for the widespread adoption across industries!

  12. It is interesting to think about the potential 3-D printing has to revolutionize the supply chain of institutions as vast and complex as the military. My key concern is the extent to which the quality of supplies that military contractors and other OEMs guarantee can be replicated by these 3-D printers. Given the mission-critical nature of many of these parts and suppliers, there is an extremely high cost of failure. The proliferation of additive manufacturing should be accompanied by constant innovation and technological improvement that allows printers to mimic the structural complexity of the products they are designed to make.

  13. Hey Dan, thanks for writing this!

    I am concerned about the diffusion of blueprints for 3D-printed to non-military actors. If, say, a grenade launcher can be easily printed with the right blueprints and, assuming that grenades are easier to come by than grenade launchers, wouldn’t this make the possibility of non-state actors acquiring very lethal machinery much easily? What steps is the military taking to safeguard this knowledge and prevent its proliferation? If it is inevitable that non-state actors will be able to acquire the information (perhaps from rogue states), what can the military do in response to non-state actors who have easy access to advanced weaponry via 3D printing?

  14. Great piece!

    Thanks for shedding light on this opportunity – it makes so much sense for the military given their unlimited budget yet serious space constraints. As Lebron raised, I’d be concerned about power outages and mobility of printers, but barring those concerns, this seems like a no brainer for military applications.

    Opposite from Sam above, I actually imagine that consolidation might further encourage this kind of innovation rather than limit it. I’d worry that competing organizations might not make this investment, but unified ones would as they’d see the benefits applied across a much larger set of forces.

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