3-D Printing: Evolving for Tomorrow Today through Additive Manufacturing

By Air Force Maj. Hank Pflugradt
U.S. Transportation Command

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., Nov. 30, 2016 — What if a technology existed that allowed troops at forward operating locations to manufacture aircraft parts, tank treads and ship components, on the spot, anytime, anywhere, at the touch of a button? Is this science fiction or a future reality? Neither. 3-D printing is here, today.

3-D printing is starting to turn the world of logistics on its head. Additive manufacturing, the linking of 3-D printing to the production process, is disrupting the way we think about transportation by reducing manufacturing costs and decentralizing production. In this way, 3-D printing is shortening the global supply chain. It is fundamentally changing the way products are made by enabling manufacturing to move closer to the user and eliminating the need to assemble and transport parts in different locations away from the point of intended use. These changes are decreasing the need for massive physical inventories, shortening the supply chain, slashing costs, and ultimately reducing risk.

An airman holds examples of 3-D printed sign brackets at U.S. Transportation Command's headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Nov. 7, 2016. The Transcom Commander's Action Group demonstrated a proof of concept by using a 3-D printer to create the brackets. This technology offers nearly limitless possibilities for Transcom's global deploy, sustain and redeploy enterprise. (Air Force photo)

An airman holds examples of 3-D printed sign brackets at U.S. Transportation Command’s headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Nov. 7, 2016. The Transcom Commander’s Action Group demonstrated a proof of concept by using a 3-D printer to create the brackets. This technology offers nearly limitless possibilities for Transcom’s global deploy, sustain and redeploy enterprise. (Air Force photo)

Conceptually, 3-D printing is quite simple. It requires hardware and software. The hardware consists of a 3-D printer and the raw materials used to “print” an object [e.g. plastic, metal, composite, etc.]. The software includes a digital design file, which contains the 3-D blueprint for the object, and the ability to transmit the item to the 3-D printer. When the hardware and software are paired with the user’s imagination, the possibilities for innovation are endless.

Recently, U.S. Transportation Command’s Commander’s Action Group took initial steps to demonstrate the benefits of this emerging technology. What began as a concept to change the way the command thought about logistics, quickly transformed into the design and 3-D printing of functional brackets to display office signs around the headquarters. Although the objects are small, the proof of concept is enormous.

Through research, the CAG discovered 3-D printing community portals on the internet. These websites allow graphic designers from across the world to upload their 3-D design files for free download and use, including everything from coffee cups to cell-phone cases. Using the free digital blueprints, the CAG began to produce widgets as they calibrated the printer settings.

Their next goal, however, was to print an object that was designed from scratch within Transcom. However, creating such a digital file involved a baseline of technical expertise, which the team did not have at that point. Pausing at this temporary roadblock, they reached out to a freelance digital designer who created and donated a 3-D model of the Transcom symbol.

That individual helped the CAG prove the capability of turning Transcom ideas into 3-D designs, albeit through an external source. This did not stifle innovation, but in fact, fueled it. The ability to design and print an object for practical use was now within reach. The CAG just needed to bridge the gap. Enter the Transcom facility managers.

In addition to repairing and maintaining critical systems within the headquarters building, the Transcom facility managers spend a significant amount of time fashioning metal brackets to hang office signs from the ceiling throughout the headquarters building. They do this because the original brackets were discontinued. Recognizing the opportunity to provide a more effective solution at a much lower cost, the CAG turned to 3-D printing to produce the much-needed sign brackets.

Through Google searches and YouTube tutorials, the CAG downloaded free CAD design software and learned the basics of drafting digital 3-D objects. Within a day, they optimally designed, printed, and load-tested new office sign brackets. Where the old metal brackets cost $2.50 each — not including the time and costs associated with shipping, handling, and modification — the 3-D-printed brackets cost 29 cents each in material, an 88 percent cost savings. Where the old metal brackets took weeks to deliver, the 3-D-printed brackets went from creation to installation in a matter of hours. Although the CAG’s additive manufacturing proof of concept was the first of its kind inside the headquarters, this is not where the story ends, this is where it begins.

Imagine how this concept can be applied to your organization, to the Defense Department, and to the nation. This past July, a Navy MV-22B Osprey successfully completed a 1-hour flight using a flight-critical part made by additive manufacturing techniques. It was equipped with a titanium, 3-D-printed link and fitting assembly for one of its engine nacelles.

Transcom’s 3-D printed bracket is not just a proof of concept. It is a call for innovative thought. It is spurring the collective imagination of the command to think about how this capability will impact the future of transportation and logistics. The science fiction of tomorrow is here today. How we harness it, is up to us.

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