Q&A: Research vision for 3-D printing

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Army Technology Magazine
July/August 2014 Focus: 3-D Printing

Dr. Thomas Russell is director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Adelphi, Md. He is the chief scientist for the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Question: What is the current research strategy for additive manufacturing and 3-D printing?

Dr. Russell: I think the vision for the lab is to do research guided by a long-term vision. What we want to do is the same kind of thing we're doing in material design, which is materials by design. In the case of additive manufacturing, it's really about how do we do structures by design. It's a voxel-by-voxel assembly of materials. What that would be in a 3-D structure is placing material location by location and building the fundamental building blocks to actually design structures. For ARL, a lot of it is about hybridization. If I've got to do hybrid materials, how do I actually improve strength, durability and things that are really directed more toward the Army's specific applications? In the commercial world, people are doing similar things, but the Army application typically puts our materials in extreme environments. It's a different set of material science where we're looking toward solving problems.

What 3-D printing and additive manufacturing does is give us a unique approach to begin to design those materials from the foundations as opposed to using traditional processing techniques.

Q: What is the potential of 3-D printing?

A: It's an exciting area at the moment. There's a lot of work you hear about in the press about plastics. A lot of people have actually talked about plastic guns and how you can design plastic guns, but there's a lot more than that pushing the frontiers. People today are beginning to do manufacturing of biological materials. In the future through additive manufacturing, we may be able to produce a heart and do transplants. For Soldiers, there are some medical benefits too. Many of the injuries Soldiers receive in the field are not traditional. A lot of the medical community sees this as a new approach to medicine. We can 3-D scan injuries. We can replicate what those injuries are. Surgeons and medics can practice on those specific types of injuries and provide better service to the warfighter.

Logistically there are benefits. One of our biggest challenges in the Army is that there is a huge logistics burden. If we could forward-deploy manufacturing capabilities, we would have the opportunity to manufacture parts in-theater, or repair parts. This is not just about manufacturing a new part, it's often about how we can repair something that has been damaged. We have the opportunity to do that in-theater and use local materials. It's an exciting area. I don't think we've realized its full potential.

Q: How is ARL advancing 3-D printing of super-strong materials?

A: One of the things that additive manufacturing does for you is that you can create complex structures that you cannot machine any other way. When you do that, you can create structures that have certain absorption characteristics that you wouldn't have in traditional materials. That would be one way of building protective materials. You take advantage of particular properties of strain and stress and have tetrahedron-type structures where when they get under loading there is a different loading mechanism that absorbs energy and reduces the transmission of that energy into the system. You can do the same thing with other structures with changes in Poisson's ratio so you can absorb acoustic waves and they would transmit in a direction, normal to the direction of loading. We're focused on those areas, but another area in which we're leading is in hybrid approaches and how we bring in dissimilar materials.

A lot of what you hear in the additive manufacturing world is really about a single material or two materials. A question might be, is there a way to begin putting in dissimilar materials so you can make true structures? One example might be if you had a helmet for a Soldier. We would like to put sensors on that. We can 3-D scan that today and get that topological overview of that helmet and then you can put flexible sensors or sensors on top of that surface. With 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, you can do the same thing by designing the helmet itself. If you make a 3-D contour of that helmet we could then manufacture that helmet with different materials, then embed in that the sensing systems. It's not on the surface it's actually part of the helmet itself. That means you have to start thinking about how to manufacture dissimilar materials together because they are made with all different kinds of techniques. That's where I think ARL is helping to lead in this area, Especially in applications of importance to the Army.

Q: Why do you think the Army Research Laboratory is uniquely qualified to research 3-D printing?

A: We do it in partnerships. We have joint programs, or joint collaborative activities with small businesses, and with the academic community. I think what we do is bring to bear a set of scientists and engineers, particularly with expertise in materials such as ceramics, polymers, metals, composites, and we understand the Army applications. Because it's a small business set, there really isn't a large commercial market in many of the application areas supporting the Soldier. Because of that, we kind of lead the team. We work with these other communities.

We help them to identify the challenges and problems that Soldiers need us to address and we have this in-house expertise that helps coordinate that activity. It's really the best and brightest across the community, not just with ARL researchers, but with our partner researchers. What ARL does is, we're kind of the glue that holds all of that together. We maintain that expertise to support where the Army wants to go.

Q: What can Soldiers expect from additive manufacturing and 3-D printing in the next 10 to 15 years?

A: Ten to 15 years is actually a fairly short timeline. A lot of the S&T that we do today goes beyond that. I think the number one thing that the Soldier will recognize in the near future is that what we've done in the past is basically hang gear on everything. Whether its on a tank or on a person, we're hanging things on like a Christmas tree. We treat those structures to be like that. I think what additive manufacturing will do for us is it will enable true integration into the structures. We'll get beyond this constant evolution where we're just hanging the next sensor or the next GPS device. What we'll do is start to integrate into the structures themselves. There will be a lot less weight, better performance, better characteristics of the materials and it will be more integrated as part of the total kit. I think that's what Soldiers will see in the next 10 to 15 years.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of 3-D printing?

A: I'd say I'm optimistic. I agree it's not a silver bullet. There's no one technology that will solve all our problems. The question is, how do I add those technologies together to create the best solutions? Different manufacturing or processing capabilities will create different products. Some of those products will be better than what we generate from 3-D printing or additive manufacturing. But, there are some areas where the products we will produce from this area will be far superior to what you can get with traditional manufacturing techniques. One area in particular is these complex structures. There are many things that we can make today structurally using these techniques that are impossible using traditional manufacturing techniques. There is a place for it. It will solve a lot of problems. It may add a few problems as we go along as well. But that's part of what science and technology is all about. It's about learning where the edges of technology exist and how you probe that edge. I think that's what we're doing with additive manufacturing. We're really probing the edge of manufacturing technology. We don't know where that limit is at the moment. That limit will be different for different materials.

It's an exciting space of research. I do think the potential has not been fully realized. As we move forward, you'll see more and more advancements. Major advancements will come based on the hybridization of materials. It's really where those materials start to overlap and how we can assemble those dissimilar materials where we'll get our major gains over the next couple of years -- or the next couple of decades. It's time to move on to the next phase.

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This article appears in the July/August issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on 3-D printing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.

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