Ashok Varma’s insights on AM in the Indian defense sector

Ahead of our online event, Additive Manufacturing Advantage: Aerospace, Space & Defense, 3D Printing Industry spoke with Ashok Varma, Senior Advisor for Metal AM at the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to gain insights on India’s adoption of AM within its defense sector.

Varma discussed India’s current position and future potential for integrating additive manufacturing technologies into its defense infrastructure. There is an urgent need for decisive policy reforms, strategic investments, and proactive measures to streamline procurement processes and foster innovation through international collaborations, with AM having a strong future role.

Notably, the estimates and opinions presented by Varma are his own as an independent expert and do not reflect the official stance of the Government of India (GOI), the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD), or DRDO. Serving as an honorary independent advisor to DRDO and a global entrepreneur in metal AM, Varma is not employed or formally engaged with the above-mentioned entities. His statistics are based on 15 years of experience in the Indian AM sector and discussions with various private and public entities providing AM equipment and services to MoD, DRDO, and GOI.

Current investment and market overview

Varma explained the MoD currently allocates less than $5 million annually towards AM technologies. This budget includes the purchase of 3D printing equipment, outsourcing services, and supporting R&D initiatives. 

Over the past decade, cumulative spending has amounted to less than $20 million. This investment to date demonstrates India’s measured approach to integrating advanced manufacturing capabilities into defense operations. Despite these modest figures, Varma explained the potential for significant growth. 

He emphasized that India should allocate $100-$200 million annually for AM in defense. Varma referenced a report stating the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) spends about $500 million annually, 100 times more than India’s MoD. Historically, the U.S. DoD has spent over $1000 million, about 50 times more than India’s MoD, highlighting a significant investment disparity.

U.S. DoD AM consumption forecast to 2032. Image via Additive Manufacturing Research (AMR).
U.S. DoD AM consumption forecast to 2032. Image via Additive Manufacturing Research (AMR).

“The Indian MoD needs to and must have a proper fully endorsed and fully funded strategy, with mission, vision and execution roadmap. Without this, it is wasting its time on 3D printing and will only keep falling behind. It is already as a whole only 0.5% of the global 3D printing industry size despite being the 4th or 5th largest global GDP economy – this is a stunning disparity that must be corrected at the highest level in GOI else it should simply step out of 3D printing in the premium strata,”  said the Senior Advisor.

Despite India’s substantial defense budget, bureaucratic inertia and a lack of cohesive strategy have hindered efforts to scale up AM effectively. While India boasts one of the world’s largest defense budgets at $74 billion, translating this financial strength into advanced capabilities remains a critical challenge. 

Alongside stringent regulatory frameworks and quality assurance standards to ensure the reliability and safety of 3D printed components in critical defense applications, he highlighted the role of strategic partnerships with industry and academia in developing indigenous manufacturing capabilities and fortifying India’s defense supply chain.

Overall AM progress in the Indian defense sector

Leveraging over two decades of large-format metal AM experience across North America, Europe, and Asia, the Senior Advisor highlighted its transformative impact on defense logistics and operational capabilities.

He further explained how AM can drastically cut supply chain lead times and costs. For example, using AM for critical components like titanium pressure vessels for missile systems could reduce delivery lead times by 70-80% and achieve cost savings of at least 50% compared to traditional procurement methods used by the Defense Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) or Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL).

“On a holistic basis, for the properly selected application, MoD can anticipate a lead time reduction of at least 50% and an end-to-end cost reduction of more than 25%. There are examples of critical parts where lead time can be reduced by more than 75% and cost reduced by more than 50%. In addition, it benefits from additional advantages including being able to rapidly develop new part designs, modify old designs to new and more efficient and optimized designs, and in maintenance depots as well as in the battle theatre, repair, and salvage existing damaged parts. Equally important is that MoD can reduce its reliance on imported parts and foreign sources,” he explained.

Addressing questions about proprietary developments, Varma expressed reservations about AM developments within the Indian defense sector. He noted that while several technologies, such as Laser Direct Energy Deposition (L-DED), Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM), and Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF), are used but lack patent protection, highlighting the need for strategic collaborations and investments in advanced solutions.

A large propellant tank assembly. Photo via Ashok Varma.
A large propellant tank assembly. Photo via Ashok Varma.

“I should add that I have designed (with investment from a partner) what is easily going to be the world’s most technologically advanced, largest inert chamber, multi-deposition processes, fastest and most complex deposition technology – and we are building it in India,” explained Varma.

When asked about the implementation of sustainable AM processes, Varma advocated for privatizing AM within the MoD, stressing streamlined procurement, transparent practices, and global industry engagement to boost operational efficiency and promote innovation.

Future directions and strategic autonomy

Looking ahead, Varma explained the importance of increased investment in AM within defense. He highlighted the strategic importance of aligning India’s defense spending with global benchmarks, particularly in advanced technologies that can bolster military capabilities and operational efficiencies. 

Comparatively, the U.S. DoD plans to invest a substantial $13 billion over the next decade in 3D printing technologies, signaling a robust commitment to leveraging AM for military applications. He suggested Indian MoD should follow the U.S. DoD strategy and implementation plan, to capitalize on advanced AM technologies for defense applications.

Additionally, Varma stressed public-private partnerships and global collaborations to drive innovation in India’s defense sector. By working with industry leaders and adopting international best practices, India can enhance its manufacturing capabilities and foster a vibrant defense innovation ecosystem.

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Featured image shows a large propellant tank assembly. Photo via Ashok Varma.

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