Engineers at the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Communications-Electronics Center recently headed into the classroom to explore the possibilities of using advanced 3D printing processes as a means to support Army readiness and modernization.
The center's Product Realization Systems Engineering and Quality Directorate, or PRD, hosted Additive Manufacturing 101, the first training course of its kind here. Twenty engineers, logisticians and quality personnel from across the Communications-Electronics Center and Communications-Electronics Command, or CECOM, attended the three-day course for hands-on experience.
Additive manufacturing, or AM, has been around for three decades, but in the course of the last few years, AM's 3D printing processes have markedly and rapidly improved through high-performance computing which allows better modeling along with the addition of new materials that make manufactured parts more robust; as a result, its applications have become more extensive and applicable to the Army's mission.
"There's been a tremendous push from the technology community for senior leaders to pay attention to AM and what it can do for the Army," said Andrew Davis, a senior mechanical engineer who is the PRD lead for advanced manufacturing and the center's representative to the Army additive manufacturing community of practice.
"The science and technology community emphasizes using additive manufacturing to design new products, while the Army's growing interest in AM is more focused on the supply chain augmentation aspect of AM -- reducing supply chain challenges of time and scarcity of components," Davis said.
General Gus Perna, commanding general of the Army Materiel Command, or AMC, and Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, are reviewing the Army's Additive Manufacturing Campaign Plan, which has been in development for the last eight months. AMC led the plan development - a high-level approach to operationalize AM in support of readiness - with the participation of organizations from across the Army, including the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Communications-Electronics Center.
The center's PRD is the leading technical authority on every phase of the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or C4ISR, system lifecycle, from the improvement of fielded systems' functionality to the deployment of new, cutting-edge technologies. The directorate serves as the engineering bridge that maintains and enriches fielded, often aging, Soldier capabilities as the Army transitions those legacy systems to its next generation force.
PRD is the engineering support for CECOM's Integrated Logistics Support Center and for C4ISR-centric programs of record. As new systems go into production and eventually age into the sustainment phase, PRD engineers ensure there's a capability to produce and deliver the components that Soldiers in the field need as well as provide technical expertise from both an engineering and quality assurance standpoint.
"The idea of using additive manufacturing to augment supply chains and to help provide perhaps a broader industrial base to make components is very interesting, and that's a primary focus for us," said Davis. "At the same time, we are championing AM competency and capability across the whole organization; our longer term vision is to enable new manufacturing capabilities to build systems, so that when we go into sustainment later on, we have the latest technologies already in the process."
Davis was responsible for finding and championing the AM 101 course, which was presented by instructors from the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation at the University of Texas, El Paso. His overall training goal was to raise awareness of AM within the Communications-Electronics Center and how it might be applied to solve Army problems.
The course utilized lectures and hands-on activities to provide an introduction to current additive manufacturing technologies along with their capabilities and limits, and related design, manufacturing and software tools. It also included a team challenge during which students designed and utilized 3D printers to produce a mechanical pulley assembly. The course concluded with destructive testing of the printed pieces to find the strongest pulley that weighed the least.
When the presentation was over and the printed pulley assemblies had been tested, i.e. destroyed, written feedback indicated the course was well-received and the majority of students asked to continue learning.
"I enjoyed the hands-on aspects of the training," said Greg Henderson, a senior mechanical engineer, with PRD. "We were able to learn from mistakes; in a matter of hours, we designed, manufactured (printed) and tested to see which designs would work, rather than what might take weeks to months through traditional manufacturing techniques."
PRD will host three additional sessions of Additive Manufacturing 101 with dates in February, April and August; there is also the possibility that more advanced courses will subsequently be developed and presented.