3D Systems’ growing relationship with the US government has led to a big pay off. Through the US’s national 3D printing institute, America Makes (NAMII), the 3D printing industry leader has been awarded two research contracts to develop advanced 3D printing capabilities for aerospace and defense applications. The contracts, funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), total over $1 million in funding.
Currently, industrial 3D printing, particularly in metals, requires great care and trial and error to ensure accuracy, functionality and repeatability in 3D printed components. Because aerospace and defense manufacturers have the highest standards for manufacturing processes, the 3D printing industry as a whole has been working hard to improve the quality control and monitoring systems of industrial 3D printers. As a part of this movement, 3D Systems will be enhancing its existing Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal 3D Printing (DMP) portfolio to meet the stringent standards of defense and aerospace. Working with the US’s largest defense contractors, such as Honeywell, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin, the company will be producing a precision closed-loop advanced manufacturing and monitoring platform.
3DS’ contracts include a partnership with University of Delaware’s Center for Composite Manufacturing (UDCCM), Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (LMCO) and are geared towards enhancing print monitoring, via predictive technologies, in the company’s SLS machines. By dynamically monitoring parts at each print layer, 3DS hopes to ensure accuracy and repeatability in the production of aerospace parts. 3DS’ second contract is with the Applied Research Laboratory of Pennsylvania State University, Honeywell International, and Northrop Grumman Corporation. The contract is meant to bring the company’s metal printing systems up to aerospace standards with the manufacturing of fully dense, chemically pure components.
Ralph Resnick, director of America Makes, said of the news, “The collaborative and forward looking initiative of America Makes members is driving extraordinary strides in 3D printing centric advanced manufacturing for this important industry. America Makes is grateful for the support and funding from AFRL to enable important research like this.”
Former White House staff member and Vice President of Alliances & Partnerships for 3DS, Neal Orringer, commented, “These important research projects will position leading industry manufacturers to 3D print high-performance precision parts at convincing scale with enhanced functionality. 3D Systems pioneered the use of advanced manufacturing for aerospace and defense applications and is proud to work with such esteemed partners to further advance these technologies and meet and exceed the future demands of the Air Force.”
These contracts are a huge step for the acceptance of industrial 3D printing by mainstream manufacturers, allowing defense manufacturers to produce complex parts that may ultimately prevent material waste, reduce costs, and could cut carbon emissions, if previous examples of 3D printed aerospace parts are any indicator. At the same time, it further cements 3D printing’s connection to the defense industry and the federal government.
Both in relation to Orringer’s appointment to 3DS’ executive staff and the founding of the America Makes institute, I anticipated such relationships as those between 3DS and the defense community to take place. Orringer previously worked in the White House, overseeing the annual budgets for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Logistics Agency, and “Defense-Wide” programs and played a part in the establishment of America Makes. I suggested that Orringer’s role as Vice President of Alliances & Partnerships for 3DS might give the company greater access to the US’s defense massive military budget ($664.84 billion in 2011 [.pdf]), writing:
Additionally, through his work with the DoD, he, no doubt, has a great deal of knowledge about the various members of the defense manufacturing community. As a major player in the establishment of America Makes, Orringer may offer a unique perspective on the institute’s operations, how it fits into the federal budget and how 3D Systems might leverage the institute’s capabilities. In his new role as the VP of Alliances and Partnerships, he may be ideally suited to establish relationships through all of the connections he made while in office, both in government and among members of the manufacturing community. With 3D Systems opening up a revolving door to the White House, they could well establish themselves firmly into the foundation of the US political and business infrastructure.
In writing about America Makes, back when it was called the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, I expressed fears about the institute’s close ties to the defense industry. As America Makes is overseen by a defense non-profit, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), I wondered if America Makes would see a lot of public dollars go towards defense research. These new contracts for 3DS seem to indicate that my original fears might seem somewhat justified.