Catching up: India’s ‘3D Tech’ to Build Military Equipment

Although Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) has a 'promising future for implementation in defence,' non-technical factors such as intellectual property rights, training and education, standardisation and certification 'pose serious limitations' for its adoption by the armed forces. India should incorporate 3D technology in a big way at the earliest….

By Girish Linganna

Technology

The Military Engineering Services (MES), one of India’s Ministry of Defence’s oldest and most important agencies, has announced the completion of two 3D printed houses under the aegis of the Indian Air Force’s South Western Air Command (SWAC).

The houses were developed in Gandhinagar (on India’s western coast) in conjunction with a 3D printing construction firm based in Chennai, on the south eastern coast. Each construction is approximately 700 square feet in size and takes about a month to complete, which appears to be the industry standard at this moment.

The MES previously completed work on India’s first 3D printed sanitary blocks (standalone lavatories) in Jaisalmer, roughly 300 miles northwest of Gandhinagar. Both programmes are anticipated to be implemented as quickly as practicable by the military.

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What’s the Need?

In places like Eastern Ladakh, India’s military serves in some of the world’s most dangerous terrain. Winters are bitterly cold there, with temperatures as low as -40°C. Yet, for more than two years, India and China have been at odds. During the fall of 2020, Indian forces in Ladakh spent much of their time constructing temporary dwelling quarters. As a result, the ability to quickly develop military facilities may be advantageous.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the industry. In defence and MRO, 3D printing may be a significant multiplier, especially for legacy-based equipment like fighters and transports. 3D printing can also create titanium and graphene materials. Hybrid items will be available soon.

In four months, the Indian army employed 3D printing to create and prototype a 9mm pistol, with numerous parts made from metal 3D printing, including trigger components. It has an aircraft-grade aluminium top receiver and a carbon fibre bottom receiver.

While the Indian sector awaits the announcement of a regulation, faster design iterations, weight reduction, and flexible production would be beneficial. It will implement programmes such as tax reductions.

In February, an Indian aerospace firm based at IIT Madras’ National Center for Combustion R&D (NCRD) in Chennai successfully tested India’s first 3D-printed rocket engine. It is currently developing a tiny rocket with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, capable of launching 100kg satellites into low Earth orbit, with the first launch scheduled for late 2022

The Switch UAV, designed and manufactured by IdeaForge, which earned a $20 million order from the Indian Army, is an example of 3D-printing technology use.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2020 between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Wipro 3D for the design, development, validation, manufacture, and maintenance of defence components using metal 3D-printing technology.

In February, an Indian aerospace firm based at IIT Madras’ National Center for Combustion R&D (NCRD) in Chennai successfully tested India’s first 3D-printed rocket engine. It is currently developing a tiny rocket with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, capable of launching 100kg satellites into low Earth orbit, with the first launch scheduled for late 2022.

Why Additive Manufacturing?

Currently, the technology is quickly becoming accepted in many areas of industry, and as time passes, we will begin to see it deployed in a variety of non-business use cases. We’ve reached the syndication stage, when institutions are the biggest 3D printing users, and early adopters want to get the most out of the technology.

This is the appropriate emphasis of the market right now, as it is a product that caters to the manufacturing area. Despite the fact that hobbyists make up the largest segment, 3D printing will benefit in a variety of ways.

Armed forces across the world, from the United States to Australia, have long recognised additive manufacturing’s promise and have already deployed 3D printers. 3D printed parts can currently be found in essential aircraft engines, tanks, submarines, and even soldiers. This technology, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), has various advantages, including lowering the load on warehouse facilities, storage, logistics personnel, and transportation.

Armed forces across the world, from the United States to Australia, have long recognised additive manufacturing’s promise and have already deployed 3D printers. 3D printed parts can currently be found in essential aircraft engines, tanks, submarines, and even soldiers

According to a Belgian defence analyst, 3D printing can be a “game changer” in terms of spare parts distribution because it can reduce the entire logistics chain and allow militaries to build missing parts on-site “where they are needed.” According to the analyst, ‘AM on-site’ can also help to minimise carbon emissions.

Other advantages emerge from AM’s versatility: it can manufacture personal protective equipment, simple tools, spare parts, and more complicated systems like weapons and drones, all from a single tool. In addition, a single 3D printer can create a variety of parts and systems.

Apart from replicating existing parts, 3D printing allows soldiers to change these pieces and construct new optimized parts that are impossible to make in any other way. This technology also allows for the mixing of materials, as it can work with ceramics, composites, electronic elements, metals, and polymers, among others.

In this way, AM can help with innovation and modernisation by allowing for faster design and prototype cycles, which reduces the time it takes to get new technologies into consumers’ hands. On the other hand, it allows for the replication of obsolete parts that are no longer available on the market, as well as the continued operation of legacy systems.

Increased maintenance and repair efficiency, as well as reduced equipment downtime, can help minimize expenses. According to the Belgian expert, AM can affect the overall value of acquisition agreements and reduce the amount of money needed to buy military equipment.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is described as “a versatile technology that gives technical advantages across a range of defence applications in order to develop a more lethal and ready force.”

“It isn’t a secret that the main revenue comes from replacement parts contracts, not from asset purchases,” he said, adding that the military should ‘look at future spare parts agreements.’

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is described as “a versatile technology that gives technical advantages across a range of defence applications in order to develop a more lethal and ready force.”

An AM system is a factory in a box, a digitally controlled manufacturing line that can be quickly turned on and off.’ Christine Wormuth, Secretary of the US Army, testified in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in favour of expanding the use of AM. She emphasised that it is a “wonderful skill” that may help the logistics chain “save time and stress.” ‘Instead of having forces out in the field request spare parts and supplies all the way back,’ according to Wormuth, 3D printing can provide them with “the ability to actually produce those parts” and refill their stocks much faster.

The Backstory of the Pipeline

In 2017, the US Army’s Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center created and fired the Rapid Additively Manufactured Ballistics Ordnance, a 3D-printed grenade launcher (RAMBO). The goal of the technology demonstrator was to assist researchers in assessing whether AM technologies were developed enough to build an entire weapon system, as well as whether the materials’ qualities were robust enough to create a fully functional weapon.

The US Army revealed in February 2021 that it was developing a filament that could be used in off-the-shelf, low-cost 3D printers to create mechanically tough, battlefield-ready parts. It stated that experts at the DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory developed dual-polymer, 3D-printed parts that can assist soldiers in quickly changing out defective plastic components with lasting replacements.

European projects

Additive Manufacturing (AM) has also been tested by the European Defence Agency (EDA). In 2017, the agency completed the Additive Manufacturing Feasibility Study & Technology Demonstration project, which aimed to investigate the technology’s potential in a defence environment, including a demonstration of the feasibility of using it in support of a military operation. Currently, the agency is concentrating its efforts on two aspects of 3D printing: capability development, which includes military logistical systems and training, and research, which focuses on new technologies and materials.

The US Army revealed in February 2021 that it was developing a filament that could be used in off-the-shelf, low-cost 3D printers to create mechanically tough, battlefield-ready parts. It stated that experts at the DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory developed dual-polymer, 3D-printed parts that can assist soldiers in quickly changing out defective plastic components with lasting replacements

In October 2021, the EDA published the Additive Manufacturing – a Capability Enabler for Logistic Support initiative. Its purpose is to create a platform for member states to establish guidelines for the usage of 3D printing. Although AM has a ‘promising future for implementation in defence,’ non-technical factors such as intellectual property rights, training and education, standardisation and certification ‘pose serious limitations’ for its adoption by the armed forces, according to the project’s fact sheet. In this regard, the goal of this work is to clarify the legal elements of manufacturing and using AM spare parts, as well as to prepare the contracting and acquisition management processes to take advantage AM. It also seeks a unified approach to logistical procedures in terms of printed part identification and traceability.

The Spanish Army, for example, has used 3D printers both at home and on foreign operations. The service offers annual training on how to use AM machines, including 3D design, printing and modelling software management, and spare part fabrication.

Military troops who will be deployed in Lebanon and Mali were trained by the Spanish Army’s Logistics Brigade in March of this year. According to a news release issued by the Spanish Army, 3D printing is “being solidified through delivering solutions to daily difficulties.”

Meanwhile, the French Ministry of Defense started the OPTIFAB (Optimization of Anti-Blast Protection and Spare Parts for Light Vehicles) programme in 2019. The DGA procurement agency and the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Innovation Agency are leading the project, which also includes Arquus, a French company.

The curriculum is divided into two halves. The first seeks to investigate the possibility of additive manufacturing technologies for developing anti-blast protection and spare parts for light armoured vehicles, as well as to compare 3D printing technologies to other manufacturing and technological processes.

Although AM has a ‘promising future for implementation in defence,’ non-technical factors such as intellectual property rights, training and education, standardisation and certification ‘pose serious limitations’ for its adoption by the armed forces, according to the project’s fact sheet

The next course of action entails determining if 3D-printed parts for light military vehicles can be made in operational settings, as well as how AM technologies might facilitate and improve logistics efforts both in France and in missions abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic was also a factor in the increased usage of AM. Countries all over the world invested in this technology to combat the pandemic’s impact on supply chains and ensure the preparedness of ground forces.

A team from the NATO Support and Procurement Agency developed 3D-printed connectors that turned snorkelling masks into emergency ventilators in 2020. The technique was also employed by the Brazilian Army’s Military Engineering Institute to create face shields and personal protection equipment for its personnel.

Future Concerns Around the Corner

Despite the advances made by various armies in the deployment of 3D printing, there are still significant difficulties that impede armed forces from using AM more widely. These include policy and guidance issues such as material and process qualification, as well as certification of 3D-printed parts.

Another significant topic is the protection of intellectual property rights in AM design systems and parts. It can, however, be overcome by utilising commercially available business models. ‘If you think about creating defence items under licence, you’re paying a licence to utilise the design and manufacture yourself, and 3D printing will be a version of that to some extent,’ Kremidas Courtney explained.

Despite the advances made by various armies in the deployment of 3D printing, there are still significant difficulties that impede armed forces from using AM more widely. These include policy and guidance issues such as material and process qualification, as well as certification of 3D-printed parts

Another concern that must be addressed is the training of military personnel to operate 3D printers. As a result, armies should create safety norms and best practices in order to ensure that these activities are completed within the appropriate timeframe and cost-effectively.

According to Defence and Security analyst, Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd), “3D Printing in battlefield with context to India is an idea whose time hasn’t come yet because of the heavy expenditure in the technology associated with it. However, the benefits from this technology are enormous in the battlefield. More so considering the fact that India has two hostile neighbours on its western and the eastern borders, this technology should be incorporated in a big way at the earliest and the one-point nodal agency in the Indian Armed Forces should be the Corps of Engineers in the Indian Army for all the three Services, as the Corps of Engineers are the proven leaders in the field of camouflage and concealment and innovation in the Indian Armed Forces.”

– The writer is an Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo- German Company). The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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