CTMA Collaboration Helps to Build One of the Largest 3D Metal Printers

The US Army’s Jointless Hull project is developing one of the world’s largest 3D metal printers—capable of printing components as large as 20 feet x 30 feet x 12 feet—thanks in part to the work of a CTMA collaborative project entitled “Optimizing Facilities to Ensure Reliability and Maintainability of Large 3D Metal Printers.” The CTMA initiative combines the expertise of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and three Department of Defense partners: US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) at the Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC); Tank Automotive and Armaments Lifecycle Management; and Rock Island Arsenal.

This collaboration supports the Army’s Jointless Hull project, launched in April 2021, that is building a large-scale 3D metal printer to fabricate new 3D metal combat vehicle hulls. In September 2021, the CTMA project team began determining what’s needed to properly install a large-format 3D metal printer. To simplify the process, the project aims to assess the steps needed to install and operate a scaled-down version of the large format printer at an Advanced Manufacturing Commercialization Center (AMCC). This printer will be capable of printing components as large as 5 feet x 4 feet x 3 feet.

In Phase I, the team examined and piloted an installation analysis that included a set of planning tools and procedures used to determine what’s needed to prepare a facility to accommodate the proper installation of the initial scaled-down printer. The goal is to create a methodology that demonstrates an effective process for how other facilities can determine the feasibility of installing and operating larger, full-scaled 3D printers and other advanced manufacturing technologies.

The collaborators began by evaluating the current state of the facility to determine if it could meet or exceed the requirements for installing the scaled down version of the 3D printer. The team identified the unique installation specifications and assessed if the facility could accommodate the 3D printer’s requirements for load, power consumption, and air handling, as well as the feasibility of installing and using lift-assist technology. Then, the collaborators determined what modifications and funds would be needed to prepare the facility for proper installation and operation of the smaller scale printer. Additionally, the team identified potential risks and formulated a risk mitigation plan, and they documented lessons learned to share with relevant parties in industry and government.

In Phase II, the team will pilot modifications to the selected facility. Working with other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), local building inspectors, and utility representatives, the team will ensure that proper power, plumbing, ventilation and structural modifications are performed in accordance with equipment requirements, local building codes, and safety standards. The team will also continue data analysis efforts to help understand the impacts of completed facility modifications pertaining to the performance, maintainability, and reliability of the 3D printer and host facility.

While this collaboration will assist the Jointless Hull project, it will also benefit the DOD at an enterprise level. Rock Island Arsenal is a vital resource for the Army as one of three manufacturing arsenals and part of the overall DOD Organic Industrial Base (OIB). The vital function of the OIB in National Security Strategy has perhaps never been more apparent than over the past two decades. During this time, OIB facilities successfully surged production and Maintenance, Repair, And Overhaul (MRO) activities to sustain warfighting equipment deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan contingency operations.

For the OIB to continue successful operations, it must leverage investments in the most updated commercial additive manufacturing (AM) technologies and processes, install them quickly and properly, and train service members to operate and maintain the equipment. This initiative will prepare service members to install large 3D metal printers in other locations. Among the benefits gained with having 3D printing capabilities, it will enable a single worker to control one or more machines and will automate tasks that were previously performed manually. The use of large 3D printers will provide flexibility to surge labor, bolster wartime production, enhance equipment performance, minimize repair times, and ensure the overall readiness of DOIB equipment and weapons systems.