3D Printing is Revolutionising Spare Part Production in Land Defence: Here’s How It Works

09 February 2023
Challenger 2 tank
[Image Source: Mezha Media]


When we discuss ‘innovation’ in manufacturing, the term can often lean towards abstraction, alluding to still-forming ideas, fresh approaches and new attitudes. Its application in the defence industry, however, is an entirely different matter. Seizing innovation here means to push forward palpable change where implementation could make an immediate difference. 

A very real war is at hand in 2023. Fortunately, the innovative possibilities extended through additive manufacturing is delivering precisely this impact. 

The UK has recently announced its pledge of 14 iconic Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine’s military as conflict with Russia continues to persist. Extracting the benefits of the apparatus, however, extends beyond learning its ropes.

Maintaining the vehicles’ functionality could itself be a challenge; the Challenger 2 is only compatible with UK-based parts, as is the case for many military vehicles and their respective countries of creation. Sourcing replacements for broken components soaks up time, energy and efficiency that the military cannot afford to spare. 

This is where 3D printing is stepping in. In defence, AM spare part production tackles challenges and delivers value with unparalleled novelty and effectiveness. 

In this article, we follow the journey of a spare part from identification through to production and implementation, revealing additive manufacturing’s aptitude towards ensuring accuracy and part proficiency at every step of the way. 

Scoping the Market


[Image Credit: Michael Marais via. Unsplash]

Interrupting a day’s activity, a part has broken on a Challenger 2 tank, with damage requiring either expedient repair or tighter restoration. How should military personnel proceed? 

After retrieving information through the relevant Nato Stock Number (NSN) associated with the broken part, granting access to an intact version, the first action to be taken is to measure the part’s integrality to the entire vehicle. Determining whether the component is non-safety critical, such as a mount for a headlight, or if it adopts a safety critical role, such as a link in the tank’s tracks, articulates the urgency of administering a replacement. In this hypothetical scenario, the part at hand is a link – its swift restoration will be critical. 

Trawling the market for a solution is likely to bear inefficient fruit.

In many cases, the knowledge needed to produce the required part may no longer be available, or the business may have shifted the focus of their offerings an capabilities since the part was first produced. Indeed, in many cases, original part suppliers are no longer operational – perhaps the last member of a family-run business has retired, or the company has simply decided to close its doors for good. 

Furthermore, in the event that a supplier is located, a number of further complexities are likely to surface. A minimum order quantity may require additional payment for the singular part that is required, whilst also prompting a chain of further inconveniences, such as organising storage options or wastefully disposing of the extras. Alternatively, the lead time for delivery is likely to be too long, particularly considering the remote and frequently confidential nature of military sites. 

Finding no resolution from external providers, the operator decides to turn to additive manufacturing. Fast, flexible and cost-effective, AM technologies allow operators to firmly take matters into their own hands. 


CAD Generation


[Image Credit: SourceCAD]


Having opted for 3D printing as a route to resolution, the next bottleneck lying in the wings is the lack of available CAD file for the part required.

Digital models of military parts often either hold restricted access due to intellectual property laws, or simply do not exist. Either way, an alternative approach will be necessary to translate the physical piece into a digital format. 

Once more, accepting individual responsibility for producing this vital resource is the smoothest option. Though manually measuring the part and remodelling it by hand on a CAD design software service is possible, reverse engineering a pre-existing part can be undertaken variously. 

3D scanning is one approach that taps into a greater level of efficiency. For this, a portable scanner is employed to exhaustively capture all dimensions of an artefact, creating a digital impression which can be directly uploaded into a CAD supporting platform. This scan would be employed as a foundation from which to digitally model the part, integrating non-external dimensions inaccessible to scanning into the final design. Technological development in this field is continually honing the accuracy of this process, with products like Hexagon’s compact SmartScan 3D light scanner offering digitisation of objects within seconds and compact, lightweight design suiting it to challenging conditions.  

Generating a CAD rendition of parts hosts benefits beyond their immediate implementation for production, immortalising the part’s parameters in a digital format for years to come.

Unlocking quick recovery of individual designs, digital storage systems like AMFG’s Digital Warehouse  functionality can significantly streamline CAD retrieval and submission for production, whilst also prioritising security, offering the ability to restrict user access. Vitally, this feature lends speed and simplicity in moments when spare parts are most urgently needed. 


Printing and certifying


[Image Credit: https://www.army.mil/]

3D printing’s versatility has earned its growing prominence industry-wide, encouraging manufacturers to think outside of the box imposed by traditional manufacturing’s limitations.

Its application in military contexts, however, diverges from the norm, necessitating strict adherence to product specifications; even in this stricter context, AM continues to showcase its advantages. 

A number of important considerations precede the printing process. For instance, engineers must determine whether employing exactly the same material as used in the original part is necessary, such as maintaining the same metal grade. If this is found to be the case, X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) may be conducted, a technique detecting the precise elemental composition of scanned objects. 

Once the part has been printed, post-processing operations can bring the piece even closer to the original, such as washing, polishing, or machining additional features, such as machining a flat surface for a joint. 

Similarly rigorous examination of the printed part must also be performed post-production to ascertain its quality. 

Surveying parts for defects is crucial – especially in defence, there is absolutely no leeway for parts to function dubiously. This is particularly important where additive technologies have been employed; building a part entirely ‘from scratch’ rather than cutting away from a pre-certified material, flaws can easily go undetected if hidden within one of the part’s many internal layers. 

X-rays may once again be turned to, with CT scanning usefully granting visual access to the ‘inside’ of a part. With metal AM, this allows undesirable phenomena including air pockets or spatter related defect formation to be identified. 

However, CT scanning runs at a high price. Many instead turn to the weight of printed parts, which can often reliably indicate similarity or disparity in constitution when comparing densities with the original part. Emplacing high quality process control to enable part safety certification is crucial here, where CT scanning is not employed. 

This is relatively unsurprising practice. Other procedures, however, diverge more dramatically from the AM status quo. 

Building on the importance of maintaining similarity, the printed part should also aim to replicate the quality of the original. Unlike with conventional additive manufacturing, where generative design is almost always directed towards exponential improvement of part quality – ticking off increasingly enhanced strength to weight ratios – its application in defence tells a different story. 

A part which outperforms its predecessor quality-wise could risk catalysing secondary failures when reintroduced to the vehicle. The disproportionate strength of one track link over the others can threaten to throw off balance, changing the mechanisms that the whole structure is used to functioning with. This can trigger other parts to underperform or even break, from smaller neighbouring parts to large ones that are more arduous or expensive to mend or replace. 

Maintaining close control over the mechanical properties of a part is made simpler with additive manufacturing; here, the technology’s flexibility caters to the acute specificity required in production. 


Anticipating the Future


[Image Credit: https://www.army.mil/]

With the part printed and thoroughly certified, all that remains is its transportation to the place of installation. AMFG’s automated resource planning, included in the solution’s auto scheduling functionality, can vitally simplify and streamline this process, a particularly valuable feature amidst the complexities involved in military transit. 

Following its fitment, our hypothetical Challenger 2 is officially ready for action once more. 

Beyond the present moment, however, each stage listed in this process has helped to bolster operations in the case of disruption’s unprecedented return. The information collected throughout production can now be stored, helping to crucially shore up contingency plans. 

By growing a backlog of CAD files and installing AM facilities on military bases, replacing faulty parts and administering 3D printed replacements will increasingly become familiar terrain for operators. A greater sense of control in higher urgency situations is granted, with shortened lead times, pre-prepared resources, and easy delivery to points of need. 

AM MES & workflow automation software will also be integral to looping up each step and smoothing the transition from one process to another. AMFG’s end-to-end software powerfully reduces the manual effort required for operations, from auto-scheduling print jobs to providing an overview of post processing and quality control

Establishing a smooth flow from task to task is vital in time-sensitive military contexts; prospering in the face of volatile circumstances, remote locations and extremely specific production requirements, additive manufacturing is incomparably fit for the job. 


All The Difference


In the midst of an action packed market, bursting with innovations, partnerships and mile-stones passed, it can be easy to forget how revolutionary additive manufacturing’s core principle is: any digitally created design, down to a T, can be created quickly and economically in physical form. 

AM’s applications in military contexts bring back to light the technology’s most central advantages. As a sector that leans heavily on adaptability, the capacity to produce any item, anywhere and at any time from the simple stimulus of a digital file is game changing.   

Over the past few years, unprecedented circumstances have gnawed away at the tenacity of our supply chains, whether due to a global virus outbreak, or indeed the perseverance and oscillating consequences of war. Yet, the industrial rise of additive manufacturing is equipping companies, organisations and even armies to keep their feet firmly on the ground, driving the effort to fight back against the unknown.



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