Defense electronics and 3D printing
Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has made its way into the military embedded computing realm as suppliers are using the technology to speed up their production and reduce development costs. They can save thousands of dollars by printing heat sinks, connectors, components, and even printed circuit boards. 3D printing can save tremendous amounts of time, but the defense industry is not known for being quick to change. The Department of Defense (DoD) is notorious for kicking tires on new technology for years before deploying it in mission-critical applications – and only after rigorous testing. However, with 3D printing they seem to be doing more than kicking the tires.
“Everybody is looking at it,” says Wayne Plucker, Industry Manager at Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Texas. “The Air Force is looking at it as a way to cost-effectively maintain parts for legacy aircraft fleets. The Navy is doing a lot of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, largely in metal sorts of things such as replacing classic metal brackets. For example, if they need an unusual complex shape or something like that they will use a 3D printer to create a part, which only requires minimal machining.”
Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) embedded computing companies are already creating boards via 3D printing. “In the defense industry 3D vendors – like us – printing our own PWB [printed wire board] to prototype will save thousands of dollars per board type per project and potentially putting financial pressure on many of the smaller prototype PWB manufacturers,” says Doug Patterson, Vice President of Military and Aerospace Business at Aitech in Chatsworth, Calif. This is only one of the disruptive elements to the industry.
“We have [a 3D printer] and it’s been a true enabler for us,” says Eric Sivertson, Executive Vice President, ATD Business Unit, Kontron in Poway, Calif. “However, the technology has not gotten to a point where a sellable 3D printed product could be developed with it for the defense segment. We do use 3D printing in the COTS development process to save cost and get to market faster. 3D printing will happen faster on the commercial side since it doesn’t have the same rigorous specifications to drive through and it has significant time to market pressures.”
What about those rigorous specifications? 3D printing is wonderful, but how do you guarantee military specifications if 3D-printed parts are created on a ship at sea or in a P-8A aircraft and don’t go through the same steps as other military components are required to do?
It depends on the application and the risk of the mission, Patterson says. “As unmanned robotic ships take a more active role in everyday life, the need for many of the parts standards are not needed since a human life is not in jeopardy – especially in space when a failed robotic ship just drifts away or burns up the in atmosphere, hurting no one. In manned systems, the maker of the replacement part takes on the responsibility (and public shame) if the failure leads to them.”
“For certification of parts it is really about the process,” Plucker says. “What they’ve done is certify the processes and certify people at a company who validate the process. If the process is followed the part will be conformal. In the military that is reasonably easy to do. To their credit all the military services are doing a reasonably good job of figuring how they can validate a 3D part as a conformal part. This is pretty much the opposite of the FAA, who is being dragged kicking and screaming into 3D printing. At the FAA there is an abundance of concern about safety being adversely affected by any new type of manufacturing process.”
Embedded computing companies are printing boards and connectors, but what will stop the end user – whether it is the military or the auto industry – from printing out their own boards and chips and cutting out the middle man?
“I doubt it will happen, unless complex processing, FPGA, and memory electronic components can be 3D printed in commercially-viable production with nanometer line widths too,” Patterson says. “Then there’s the legal IP right issues that would need to be worked out of who owns what rights to manufacture proprietary replacement parts, etc.”
Despite some of the procedural hurdles, the DoD and the defense industry are embracing 3D printing, although at a slower pace than commercial markets. The defense market was “built around procedures and testing for mass production,” Sivertson says. “A product produced through the 3D printing process does not meet any set of standards. Each part produced is unique and not always considered an exact copy such as a mass produced part with guaranteed consistency throughout. It will require a DoD program or two to come in and develop a few standards to say 3D parts built this way are sufficient to military requirements and standards.”