By ECBC CommunicationsMay 15, 2013
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (May 16, 2013) -- Additive Manufacturing technology has gained notoriety due to its ability to reproduce everything from critical gun parts with full functionality, to exact replicas of children's toys. Three-dimensional printing has even made an appearance in recent pop music videos, transporting viewers through a seemingly futuristic odyssey to clone a high-tech version of will.i.am.
However, Rick Moore, Branch Chief of the Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center notes, "more than toys or gun parts can be produced with these Additive Manufacturing technologies."
Additive Manufacturing (also known as rapid prototyping or 3D printing) is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Having this capability has increased the speed at which products are brought to market, while also proving to be ideal for testing, which allows for cost-effective design changes during the preproduction cycle of a product.
Moore and his team have been utilizing these revolutionary processes and capabilities to produce items in support of the Warfighter and the Homeland, all within their Rapid Technologies lab on-campus at ECBC.
"3D-printing and 3D laser scanning are capabilities we've had here since the mid-1990s," said Moore. "These capabilities help us get equipment in the hands of the Warfighter quicker, and it also provides access for other engineering and science groups to design products with the ability for many iterations or design changes before fully investing critical funds into the mass-production of that item."
In the simplest of concepts, as Moore explains it, "…it's a process that can take an idea that has been drawn on a napkin and transform it into a 3D product that you can look at, feel and test in a matter of hours or a few short days."
"Additive Manufacturing technologies allow people to design something quickly and then produce an affordable physical model that can be thoroughly inspected, discussed and tested before additional money is invested or items are fielded," adds Lester Hitch, an engineering technician in the Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch.
The Look and Feel of Engineering
Additive Manufacturing has paved the way for several new technologies that will change the landscape of the Army, such as the Octopus-inspired suction cups developed by U.S. Army Research Laboratory scientists with the assistance of Moore's Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch. These self-sealing suction cups, conceptualized by Chad Kessens of ARL during his post-graduate research in robotic manipulation, were produced with the assistance of engineering technician Brad Ruprecht from the Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch, using the Objet Connex500 multi-material 3D-printer.
These robotic suction cups are able to maximize suction force and the passive reaction forces that cause the cup to activate and open when the lip contacts an object, breaking the seal to initiate suction.
"Using the multiple digital material options afforded by the Connex500 allowed us to blend variations of elastomeric and rigid materials at the same time, into the same product. That otherwise would be very difficult if not nearly impossible to manufacture traditionally," Ruprecht said.
The Rapid Technologies Branch also supported prototyping of the Anthropomorphic Control Arm, a recent project of the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Division's in support of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Robotics.
"The ACA is an intuitive joystick developed to control a hydraulic actuating arm and claw mounted on a military vehicle. Much like how a human arm has wrist, elbows and the ability to twist or extend, the ACA has joints that mimic these motions to manipulate the vehicle mounted arms in a fashion that requires little to no training between operators," Ruprecht said.
The ACA project has been through multiple design iterations ranging from simple wood or cardboard models that test ergonomics to more involved designs built using polycarbonate or nylon plastic materials that support the integration of electronics and sensors that allow full functionality testing.
Beyond the Additive Manufacturing capabilities of the branch, there is also a highly capable 3D scanning department supported by engineering technician Ryan Gilley.
"3D scanning is great for recreating organic items, such as those fitted to human anatomy -- or even exploded fragments -- and for items involving prismatic geometry, like hole-patterns or custom brackets," said Gilley.
In cases of evidence collection, exploded fragments provided by ARL's Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate can be scanned and accurately recreated for various uses, such as lightweight replicates that preserve the integrity or security of the physical sample. In fact, components from an entire vehicle system can be scanned and recreated in a 3D-CAD environment to very accurate detail to assist groups like the Letterkenny Army Depot in the production of Mine- Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.
Additive Manufacturing for the Common Man
While the engineers of the Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch are using their 3D equipment to make life safer for the Warfighter, they recognize its presence in popular culture as well. While the general public is concerned about those who would use the technology to bypass laws for gun production with a $2K printer, Moore and his engineers hope that a few users won't mar the technology and the possibilities for everyone else.
"Sure, the technology is available for home use, but we feel the higher functionality and capability we have been able to achieve has been a credit to the team I have put together, combined with our accessibility to unique projects provided by ECBC and other Department of Defense organizations," said Moore.
The Rapid Technologies engineers truly care about utilizing this capability to make the world a better place for the Warfighter: "We want to be a part of the driving technology behind the evolution of additive manufacturing in the Army and can hopefully shape its future into something meaningful," Hitch reflects.
They are halfway there. Hitch said some manufacturers have already come to them for their opinion on the technologies and materials.
"We like contributing and we want to use our tools to help the Army improve and evolve," Moore said.
ECBC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Comand, 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.