New high-tech military equipment is expensive. Apocryphal (or perhaps not) tales of $200 hammers have lingered since the early days of the postwar military-industrial complex. Labyrinthine procurement regulations, stringent environmental requirements, and advancing technologies have driven the current cost of high-tech war tools into the stratosphere. But new forays into advanced manufacturing technology just may reverse that trend.
In 2016, Corporal Rhet McNeal, a Marine with a degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech, entered the Marine Corps Logistics Innovation Challenge. The program sought the experience and ingenuity of Marines to create new solutions in 3D printing and wearable technologies. McNeal was one of more than 300 Marine Corps personnel who participated. His idea: a reconnaissance drone called the Scout that would be capable, low-cost, easily transportable, and field-repairable.
McNeal knew from experience using the Corps’ $25 million RQ-11 Raven drone system that some features—such as laser targeting, infrared vision, 50-mph speed, and six-mile range—came with costs beyond monetary considerations.
The Raven is normally used only for “two or three big capabilities,” according to McNeal. “What we try to do is [take] away those other 75 to 80 capabilities that made it $250,000 or $175,000,” he says in reference to the Scout. “We cut it down to what we actually were going to use.”
The full Raven system, which includes a controller and three drones with 4.5-foot wingspans, takes up valuable space in transports for McNeal’s Combined Anti-Armor Team—space they can’t spare. The trucks need to carry essentials first: water, fuel, ammo, and field packs. “The capability we added was to be portable,” McNeal says. “We transport it in our backpack. We have an assault pack—standard issue. Every Marine has one. We made the Scout to fit in that.”
Based on the Nomad, the Scout is a 3D-printed fixed-wing drone costing $615 per unit. The Scout has more modest capabilities—two-mile range, no infrared imaging or laser targeting, and 12- to 20-minute flight time—but compared to the $30,000-per-unit cost of a Raven, the Scout is a bargain in the high-dollar world of defense.
Is the Scout a harbinger of things to come? United States military spending amounted to 3.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, which translates to $571 billion—first in absolute cost globally and fourth behind Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Russia in percentage of GDP. Given the pace of technology and the challenges the US military faces, how can digital manufacturing help the defense industry?
The question almost provides its own answer. Just as the pace of technological development challenges the cumbersome military procurement system, advances in digital design and manufacturing (DDM) permit the rapid development of new designs and evolution of existing designs.
The advantages of digital manufacturing are significant: rapid deployment, low capital expenditure, freedom of design (and redesign), simplified consolidation of components, economical short-run manufacturing, and the freedom to innovate beyond the constraints of traditional manufacturing methods.
These same advantages reduce the limitations of military procurement. Layers of oversight and approvals can bog down the process compared to private industry. However, with policy and process changes in the future, DDM could greatly enhance the effectiveness of the whole process, from design to operational use. Design engineers armed with modern DDM can develop, test, and evolve designs much faster than even a decade ago. Changes to a digital model can be rapidly prototyped and tested and the updated design promulgated to production and supply with ease.
As to the benefits of additive manufacturing (AM), Ian Wing, a manager in federal supply-chain practice with Deloitte, says: “We see two primary value drivers for additive manufacturing: supply-chain evolution and product evolution. In terms of product, AM allows for the manufacture of parts that would be otherwise impossible or impractical. In many cases, this results in reduced weight or increased performance.”
The end user—in this case the soldier, sailor, or Marine—now has the ability to maintain, repair, or even augment capabilities with a low-cost, rapid-turnaround, and greatly reduced logistics footprint. The digital thread that connects the design to the end user/maintainer offers enhanced capabilities along the full product path.
“On the supply-chain side, implementing AM and digital thread allows the military to digitize large swaths of the supply chain, particularly spare parts for existing weapons systems,” Wing says. “Imagine a scenario where instead of buying, warehousing, and shipping dozens of spares across oceans and continents, spares are manufactured on demand, closer to the point of need.”
The Scout is a prime example. Small, hand-launched drones of this type are recovered in two ways: either deep-stall landing (essentially a controlled vertical drop) or skid recovery. Both carry a risk of damage. But the product evolution of the Scout adds the capability of operators to 3D print replacement parts in the field, which also demonstrates supply-chain evolution from the military’s usual system and eliminates costly repairs or lengthy downtime.
“I don’t see [the Scout] as replacing our current supply chains, but I do see it as a great opportunity to augment existing capabilities,” Lt. Col. Gregory Pace, battalion commander of the Marines 1st Maintenance Battalion, told the Marine Corps Times last year.
In addition to exciting new applications for small drones, AM adds huge value to the military’s stockpiles. “One of the strongest use cases is spare parts for older equipment,” Wing says of AM. “Today’s service members use their gear far longer than originally designed; as a result, spare-parts stockpiles are dwindling. And some parts were never designed to be replaced, creating sky-high unit costs and long lead times for simple parts.
“Thankfully, an alternative scenario is emerging,” Wing continues. “Instead of buying physical parts, the military might procure technical data and the right to manufacture parts itself, or through a third party, using AM. Combining this with digital thread, the military has an opportunity to provision spare parts on demand through a global additive-manufacturing network.”
Some outside perception casts the modern military as a behemoth that requires massive annual expenditures, yet can lag behind private industry’s technology. However, Corporal McNeal’s Scout drone and similar projects demonstrate that the armed forces are moving forward from that model, embracing the most current technologies to increase the effectiveness of the tools of their trade.