The Potential Impact of 3D Printing on the Military Supply Chain


3 D Printing is in its infancy in terms of providing parts for the military.

A challenge for the military is of course the need for parts reliability and ruggedness at very high standards.

This is why the term “military grade” was invented.

But as 3D printing becomes part of the sustainment enterprise, there are very significant impacts to be anticipated.

“Just in time” gets a whole new meaning when one can build parts locally.

This means as well that distribute operations can be facilitated more effectively.

And there is a significant potential reduction on the supply fleet, whether it be by land, sea or air.

What 3D printing can provide is a further enhancement as well of sea basing for an ability to provide parts produced at sea can be stood up.

But we are in early days of such possibilities.

As Michael Gravier noted in an April 12, 2016 article:

The specialization and economic benefits of globalization become outdated in a world where a 3D printer and some spools of wire or other generic inputs can make nearly any desired product relatively quickly.

Generic inputs require far less negotiation and planning. They also do not become obsolete and the quality is standardized, meaning that there’s less need to monitor supplier performance.

Since nearly all value is added by the 3D printer and inputs are relatively low value, standardized commodities, Just in Time Inventory (JIT) and other inventory reduction approaches will be needed less.

And the graphic below highlights how 3D printing will impact the commercial sector and it does not take much imagination to understand how significant such a transition will be for military operations as well.


What is clear is that 3D printing for the deployed force will be yet another driver for shifting in the United States from the antiquated depot system.

Our closest allies such as the Brits and the Australians have already demonstrated that advanced systems need a very different appraoch to logistics support than the use of the rules and methods of maintaining fixed depots. 3D printing is just the latest driver for change on the U.S. but can the U.S. follow the path of innovation rather than federal sourcing?

Earlier this year, the USAF installed a metallic 3D printed part on an operational F-22.

The 3D aircraft printed part was installed by 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintainers during depot maintenance at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

574th AMXS director Robert Lewin said: “One of the most difficult things to overcome in the F-22 community, because of the small fleet size, is the availability of additional parts to support the aircraft.”

The printed part is designed to replace a corrosion-prone aluminium component in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit. With the use of 3D printing, maintainers can now acquire replacement parts within short notice, saving money and aircraft maintenance time.

And in this story published by defenceWeb on August 21, 2019, the USAF use of 3D printing to produce non-structural aircraft parts was highlighted:

The United States Air Force’s 60th Maintenance Squadron has become the first field unit in the Air Force to be certified with an industrial-sized 3D printer that is authorized to produce non-structural aircraft parts.

The US Air Force (USAF) this week said the Stratasys F900 3D printer, which is capable of printing plastic parts up to 91x60x91 cm (36-by-24-by-36 inches), uses a material called Ultem 9085 that is more flexible, dense and stronger than typical plastic.

The printer, which is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Advanced Technology and Training Center, offers new opportunities to create needed parts while saving time and money, the Air Force said.

“It brings us a capability that we’ve never had before,” said Master Sgt. John Higgs, 60th MXS aircraft metals technology section chief. “There’s so many possibilities available to us right now. We’re just scratching the surface.”

Technicians are able to download blueprints from an online database that the University of Dayton Research Institute has approved.

“The Joint Engineering Data Management Information Control System is where we go to download already approved blueprints,” Higgs said. “Now, the University of Dayton Research Institute is working with the engineers to get those parts they developed into JEDMICS.”

The first approved project was printed on the Stratasys F900 Aug. 12 and will replace latrine covers on the C-5M Super Galaxy. Typically, parts that don’t keep the aircraft from performing their mission don’t have as high as a priority for replacement.

“The latrine covers we just printed usually take about a year from the time they’ve been ordered to the time they’ve been delivered,” Higgs said. “We printed two of the covers in 73 hours.”

Getting the printer operational was no easy task. It took eight months to get the system fully operational.

“There were facility requirements that had to be met, and then installation and certification processes to complete,” Higgs said. “After, we needed to decide who could operate the printer, then have a UDRI instructor certify them.”

Three members from the 60th MXS were chosen to be the first technicians trained in the Air Force for the initial certification. One of them, Tech. Sgt. Rogelio Lopez, 60th MXS assistant aircraft metals technology section chief, has been with the project since its inception.

“UDRI has not trained or certified anyone else at the field level except the three of us here at Travis Air Force Base,” Lopez said. “Now that we’re signed off on our training records, we’re the only ones who can operate, maintain and print on the Stratasys F900.”

Now with parts in production, all the hard work is paying off. There’s a new sense of urgency within the organization.

“It’s exciting because the Air Force is implementing new technology at the field level,” Lopez said. “The Air Force continues to encourage Airmen to be innovative by finding new ways to streamline processes and save resources.”

And since Travis AFB is the only field unit that is currently operational, requests from outside the organization are already coming in.

“We already have a list from the Air Force level to help them print and to backfill some supplies,” Higgs said. “This will ensure other bases can replace items sooner than expected with our help.”

Ultimately, the maintenance shop wants to use the printer for more than just aircraft parts.

“We have the capability to print parts on a production scale for a lot more customers,” Higgs said. “The overall goal is to generate products for every organization to support whatever needs they may have.”