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The Definitive Guide to 3D Printing: Frontline manufacturing

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The conflict in Ukraine has shocked the world, forcing the West to give more focus, attention and priority to its defence readiness
The conflict in Ukraine has shocked the world, forcing the West to give more focus, attention and priority to its defence readiness

As Europe’s defence industry scrambles in the wake of recent events, the need to both modernise and keep older equipment running is driving an increasing need for flexible, agile and cost-effective manufacture and procurement. Can industrial 3D printing offer a solution?

The conflict in Ukraine has shocked the world, forcing the West to give more focus, attention and priority to its defence readiness after years of slashing budgets during more peaceful times. 

In the UK at least, it is about working smarter rather than simply spending more. Defence procurement can be notoriously difficult to budget and project manage. There are many inefficiencies, from external factors such as supply-chain disruptions, shortage of key materials and spiralling cost of transport, to internal factors such as long-winded or vague tenders, and the well-known intolerance to criticism within larger projects’ upper management.

Within the defence industry various industrial 3D printing technologies are used to help engineers solve problems, save time and reduce costs – while supporting operational units with remote manufacturing capabilities for spare parts and negating these disruptions from external forces.

Stratasys, a global leader in polymer industrial 3D printers, use a range of different technologies to cover the full spectrum of potential applications, from early-stage prototyping to end-use ruggedised production parts for use in the field. 

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“You can find our machines almost anywhere in the defence sector,” says Claire Barker, North & East Europe general manager at Stratasys. “From military bases and repair sites to fighter-jet production floors.

“Where they are being used, it is changing the way customers operate, and they want to scale up and do more. But there is a long way to go before additive technology would be considered mainstream. We are still battling to win the hearts and minds of designers, engineers and manufacturers.”

Move to manufacture

The use of additive manufacturing (AM) is, across the board, moving beyond prototyping and in to manufacture. The defence industry has been an early adopter here as the inherent attributes of 3D printing – such as low-to-medium production volumes and the ability to customise at zero additional cost – suit applications here. Stratasys machines give both armed forces and OEMs increasing flexibility and agility when it comes to production, as well as much-needed time and cost reductions.

“Sometimes you simply don’t need large volumes of components,” says Barker. “AM allows engineers to iterate and redesign parts quickly without a big penalty on re-tooling further down the line in production. 

“It may be that you want to tweak the design of a spare part if there is a common failure mode or field use is causing wear in a particular place and you now want to stop that happening with future replacement parts. Additive production enables that agility and flexibility to have the parts you want, when you want them, and also where you need them.”

Decentralising production

Additive manufacturing can, where appropriate, allow a shift in production strategy, and indeed mindset. That is, a decentralised approach to manufacture, meaning 3D printers and materials are deployed to make any number of parts in the field, or aboard a navy vessel, for example. 

Spare parts can be kept digitally and just printed on-demand when needed. No more waiting for parts from one or two centralised factories that are at the mercy of supply chains. Examples here include an end use: wiring conduits and harnesses used in Bell’s V-22 Osprey, where the lead time was reduced from six weeks to 48 hours. 

Barker says: “The bottom line is, AM makes it possible to save massive amounts of money and time within the defence sector. Once you enable that additive mindset, you can unlock all kinds of innovation. 

“We find customers buy their first 3D printer from Stratasys to generally save money and time in making a particular part. But then they come back and buy their second and third machines as their engineers realise the power and potential of the technology, and what the possibilities are. Whether it’s land, sea or air, Stratasys will have a 3D printer and material that fits your application.”


Technology breakdown: Stratasys 3D printing technologies

  • PolyJet: The J-Series of 3D printers use UV curable photopolymers to produce full-colour multi-material parts that are perfect for concept, form, fit and functional prototyping. With the ability to print properties ranging from rubberlike to hard materials and transparent to vivid colours – all in one print. These are ideal for product development, to produce accurate mock-ups as well as wind-tunnel models.
  • Stereolithography: The Neo series of 3D printers are proudly designed and made in UK. Offering best-in-class reliability and repeatability, the open material resins are cured by laser to offer highly accurate, large volume of parts capable of ultrafine details using materials with functional production properties.
  • FDM: FDM 3D printers use a variety of engineering-grade and high-performance thermoplastic filaments to produce strong functional parts with applications including drone body structures and unmanned ground vehicles, as well as end-of-arm tooling, metal forming and thermoforming tooling, drill guides and manufacturing aids.
  • P3: A transformative 3D printer enabling flexible production of end-use parts in a diverse range of high-performance materials. Achieve industry-leading accuracy, consistency, detail and throughput with the P3 (Programmable Photopolymerization technology). Choose from a wide range of single-component, commercial-grade photopolymers. Applications include aerospace-grade components to injection-mould tooling. 
  • SAF: The H350 was designed in the UK to deliver production-level throughput for end-use parts. Using a powder-based additive process, SAF technology can produce tens of thousands of parts. Typical applications include wire routing clips, circuit board brackets, fan housings, covers, housings and more.

Get to grips with the future factory at Advanced Manufacturing, part of the Engineering Futures webinar series. Register for FREE to watch on-demand content now.  

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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