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Evolving for Tomorrow through Additive Manufacturing

U.S. Transportation Command's Commander's Action Group demonstrated a proof of concept by using a 3D printer to create signage brackets. This technology offers nearly limitless possibilities for USTRANSCOM's global deploy, sustain and redeploy enterprise. Photo by Maj. Nichole L. Downs, USA, USTRANSCOM Public Affairs

What if a technology existed that allowed troops at forward-operating locations to manufacture aircraft parts, tank treads and ship components, on the spot, anytime, anywhere, at the touch of a button? Is this science fiction or a future reality? Neither. 3D printing is here, today.

Currently, across the globe, 3D printing is starting to turn the world of logistics on its head. Additive manufacturing, the linking of 3D printing to the production process, is disrupting the way we think about transportation by reducing manufacturing costs and decentralizing production. In this way, 3D printing is shortening the global supply chain. It is fundamentally changing the way products are made by enabling manufacturing to move closer to the user and eliminating the need to assemble and transport parts in different locations away from the point of intended use. These changes are decreasing the need for massive physical inventories, shortening the supply chain, slashing costs, and ultimately reducing risk.
 
Conceptually, 3D printing is quite simple. It requires hardware and software. The hardware consists of the 3D printer and the raw materials used to “print” an object (e.g. plastic, metal, composite, etc.). The software includes a digital-design file, which contains the 3D blueprint for the object, and the ability to transmit the item to the 3D printer. When the hardware and software are paired with the user’s imagination, the possibilities for innovation are endless.
 
Recently, the U.S. Transportation Command Commander’s Action Group took initial steps to demonstrate the benefits of this emerging technology. What began as a concept to change the way the command thought about logistics, quickly transformed into the design and 3D printing of functional brackets to display office signs around the headquarters. Although the objects are small, the proof of concept is enormous.
 
Through research, the CAG discovered 3D-printing community portals on the internet. These websites allow graphic designers from across the world to upload their 3D design files for free download and use, including everything from coffee cups to cell-phone cases. Using the free digital blueprints, the CAG began to produce widgets as they calibrated the printer settings.
 
Their next goal, however, was to print an object that was designed, within USTRANSCOM, from scratch. However, creating such a digital file involved a baseline of technical expertise, which at that point the team did not have. Pausing at this temporary roadblock, they reached out to a free-lance digital designer who created and donated a 3D model of the USTRANSCOM symbol.
 
That individual helped the CAG prove the capability of turning USTRANSCOM ideas into 3D designs, albeit through an external source. This did not stifle innovation, but in fact, fueled it. The ability to design and print an object for practical use was now within reach. The CAG just needed to bridge the gap. Enter the USTRANSCOM facility managers.

In addition to repairing and maintaining critical systems within the headquarters building, the USTRANSCOM facility managers spend a significant amount of time fashioning metal brackets to hang office signs from the ceiling throughout the headquarters. They do this because of the discontinuation of the original equipment brackets. Recognizing the opportunity to provide a more effective solution at a much lower cost, the CAG turned to 3D printing to produce the much-needed sign brackets.
 
Through Google searches and YouTube tutorials, the CAG downloaded free computer-aided design software and learned the basics of drafting digital 3D objects. Within a day, they optimally designed, printed and load-tested new office sign brackets. Where the old metal brackets cost $2.50 per bracket (not including the time and costs associated with shipping, handling and modification), the 3D-printed brackets cost 29 cents each in material, an 88 percent cost savings. Where the old metal brackets took weeks to deliver, the 3D-printed brackets went from creation to “in the ceiling” in a matter of hours. Although the CAG’s additive manufacturing proof of concept was the first of its kind inside the headquarters, this is not where the story ends, this is where it begins.
 
Imagine how this concept can be applied to your organization, to the Department of Defense, and to our Nation. This past July, a U.S. Navy MV-22B Osprey successfully completed a one-hour flight using a flight-critical part made by additive manufacturing techniques. It was equipped with a titanium, 3D-printed link and fitting assembly for one of its engine nacelles.
 
USTRANSCOM’s 3D-printed bracket is not just a proof of concept. It is a call for innovative thought. It is spawning the collective imagination of the command to think about how this capability will impact the future of transportation and logistics. The science fiction of tomorrow is here today. How we harness it is up to us.

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