Is 3D Printing the Future of War?

Gun barrels, bullets, artillery rounds and other tools can all be 3D printed, saving the defense industry time and money.

Gun barrels, bullets, artillery rounds and other tools can all be 3D printed, saving the defense industry time and money.

As 3D printing continues to revolutionize the manufacturing industry by enabling complex products to be printed in a matter of hours, the considerable benefits of additive manufacturing are appealing.

One industry in particular that stands to reap these benefits is the arms industry. In 2020, global military spending was estimated to be around $1.83 trillion—and this trend is predicted to continue. As defense forces around the world continue to need more ammunition, tools and machine parts, additive manufacturing is an effective recourse to bolstering this vast, complex supply chain.

The 3D Printing of Guns, Bullets and Bombs

Guns, bullets and artillery rounds are the most fundamental aspect of any military’s arsenal. In 2017, around 133 million firearms were estimated to be in circulation in the world’s militaries with an additional 100,000 artillery weapons. Moreover, around 10 billion bullets are manufactured every single year. To put this number into perspective, one could shoot every single man, woman and child on the planet today and still have nearly 2.5 billion bullets to spare.

For guns and artillery to function, they require precise, durable construction. Gun barrels, bullet casings and artillery rounds need to be perfectly calibrated to the millimeter for ballistic purposes. Additionally, they require high tensile strength to prevent breakage or cracks while fulfilling heat resistance requirements. Bullet and artillery casings in particular need to be constructed from cheap, sturdy material since thousands of them are fired routinely.

10 billion bullets produced annually means that there isn’t going to be a shortage of them anytime soon.

10 billion bullets produced annually means that there isn’t going to be a shortage of them anytime soon.

Titomic and Repkon recently signed an agreement to operate a 3D printing facility in Australia. They aim to combine Repkon’s cylinder-creating expertise with Titomic’s 3D printing technology to enhance Australia’s defense manufacturing processes. Turkey-based Repkon has nearly four decades of experience in metal-building techniques like hot spinning, flow-forming and shear forming that it uses to produce warheads, gun barrels, bullet casings and missile bodies, among other pieces of equipment.

The defense industry relies heavily on highly efficient, perfectly calibrated cylindrical metal components, be it gun barrels or bullet shells. (Image courtesy of Repkon.)

The defense industry relies heavily on highly efficient, perfectly calibrated cylindrical metal components, be it gun barrels or bullet shells. (Image courtesy of Repkon.)

Titomic, an Australia-based company, has made a name for itself through its patented additive manufacturing process. Called Titomic Kinetic Fusion (TKF), the process involves using pressurized gas to deposit metal powder at supersonic speed onto a build tray. At such speeds, the kinetic energy released upon impact is high enough to plastically deform the metal particles and bond them in an extremely dense layer. As more metal powder is deposited, it forms layers of tightly bonded metal parts into a desired shape that needs little post-processing. TKF’s additive manufacturing style also reduces material loss by 90 percent while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60 percent.

Where other additive manufacturing methods involve heating metal powder, TKF is an example of “cold spray” additive manufacturing where no lasers or other heat sources are used to fuse the powder in shape. Here, all the required energy is derived from the kinetic energy of the pressurized gas. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

Where other additive manufacturing methods involve heating metal powder, TKF is an example of “cold spray” additive manufacturing where no lasers or other heat sources are used to fuse the powder in shape. Here, all the required energy is derived from the kinetic energy of the pressurized gas. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

TKF’s build rates are extremely high, with TKF 9000 boasting a build rate of 75kg per hour and capable of producing parts that have a maximum volume of 9m x 3m x 1.5m. TKF-printed products have high tensile strength and demonstrate a porosity of 0.3 percent. Titomic printers use a variety of different metals and alloy powders, including titanium, copper, steel, nickel, Inconel 718 and Invar 36.

TKF 9000 is considered one of the world’s largest industrial 3D printers. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

TKF 9000 is considered one of the world’s largest industrial 3D printers. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

Through TKF, Titomic has developed ways to fuse dissimilar metals. For instance, it can first print layers of titanium, and then print layers of other metals like nickel or steel on top of it, thus creating a multi-metal component that exploits the benefits of all the metals.

TKF also allows for the creation of heterogeneous alloys that can be mixed in different ratios and fused during printing. It is easy to metalize polymers, plastics and ceramic tools to enhance their durability and grant them other properties that they might not have, in a timely cost-effective way. Whether it is multi-metal fusing, heterogeneous alloys or metalizing, the military applications can include everything from artillery casings and barrels to body armor and machine parts.

Using TKF, a single component or part can be printed with parts that contain different properties. Here, a single component has a section comprised solely of pure titanium, a section that is a heterogeneous alloy of titanium and copper, and a section that is a nickel superalloy. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

Using TKF, a single component or part can be printed with parts that contain different properties. Here, a single component has a section comprised solely of pure titanium, a section that is a heterogeneous alloy of titanium and copper, and a section that is a nickel superalloy. (Image courtesy of Titomic.)

In 2020, Titomic signed a $19.7 million deal with Composite Tech, a global defense manufacturer that aims to use additive manufacturing technology to supply NATO with defense products. Two TKF printers will be supplied to Composite Tech as part of the deal, along with a total of 15 million Titomic options.

Circumventing Supply Chain Issues

Guns, bullets and artillery rounds are not the only critical equipment the military requires. Countless machine parts, vehicular parts, construction tools and other equipment are pivotal for a fully operationally, successful military. As such, downtime, logistical errors and delays, and replacement or repair costs are a serious detriment to the military. This is especially true given the time-sensitive nature of many of their missions.

Various defense sectors have begun exploring how feasible it would be to incorporate on-site, easily deployable additive manufacturing. For example, the U.S. Navy is already working with Xerox to 3D print machine parts onboard their ships. As such, 3D printing companies have an opportunity to offer cost-effective solutions that curtail downtime and maintain a high-volume build rate.

SPEE3D is an additive manufacturing company that, like Titomic, uses a gas chamber to eject powdered metal at Mach 3 speeds, resulting in the metal plastically deforming into densely packed layers. All parts printed this way are durable and affordable, costing between $40 to $100 per kilogram. SPEE3D’s printers mainly use copper, stainless steel, aluminum alloys and aluminum bronze, which have the tensile strength, cost-effectiveness and corrosion resistance necessary for numerous military applications.

Last year, the Australian Army entered a $1.5 million partnership with SPEE3D to administer a series of field tests on the company’s industrial 3D printer, WarpSPEE3D. The printer has a build rate of 100g per minute and can print objects as heavy as 40kg.

WarpSPEE3D is currently being exposed to rigorous field testing to evaluate how well it can handle transportation, loading and unloading in various terrains, emergency deployments and stops, and exposure to harsh environments such as dust storms. The field tests, which have already begun, are scheduled to continue over 12 months . (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)

WarpSPEE3D is currently being exposed to rigorous field testing to evaluate how well it can handle transportation, loading and unloading in various terrains, emergency deployments and stops, and exposure to harsh environments such as dust storms. The field tests, which have already begun, are scheduled to continue over 12 months . (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)

Other Military Applications of 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing has applications beyond printing tools or machine parts. As 3D printing software grows more sophisticated, designing and printing increasingly complex parts paves the way for innovations that were not possible before. For example, the standard design of the night-vision goggles used by the U.S. Army has a selector switch that is used to turns the goggles on or off. If damaged, the part cannot be replaced and the entire night-vision device must be discarded. Additive manufacturing has enabled the U.S. Army to redesign the switch in a more sophisticated, durable way that not only extends the life cycle of the night-vision goggles, but also ensures that the part can be reprinted and replaced easily.

Another application of additive manufacturing involves increasing the service life of entire machines. In May 2020, researchers at Wichita State University (WSU) announced their collaboration with the U.S. Army on a Black Hawk tear-down project. A tear-down is when a large machine, like a vehicle, is disassembled down to its smallest part for documentation purposes. In this case, the researchers will not just be documenting every one of the Black Hawk’s 20,000 components, but will also be pursuing a goal of creating the aircraft’s digital twin.

The Black Hawk helicopter has been in service for almost four decades.

The Black Hawk helicopter has been in service for almost four decades.

Given the age of the helicopter, some models of the aircraft have been out of production for almost 15 years. As such, the only way to find replacements is through additive manufacturing. Incorporating 3D printing in the process also makes it possible to redesign some of these components to improve the helicopter’s performance.

The Black Hawk has been in service for the U.S. Army for nearly four decades, and now—through 3D printing—the army can expect to see the Black Hawk in service for much longer instead of phasing it out like it has had to do with other once-reliable equipment. The effective harnessing of additive manufacturing could possibly even allow the reintroduction of equipment that has long been out of service.