By Debralee Best, U.S. Army
As the Army drives toward improving readiness today and modernizing future equipment, the Rock Island Arsenal – Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center (RIA-JMTC) is establishing the foundation to scale additive manufacturing throughout the Army.
Named the Center of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing in the spring of 2018, RIA-JMTC will serve as a central location to develop best practices and promote execution of the campaign plan throughout the Army materiel enterprise.
The Army is operationalizing additive and advanced manufacturing across the materiel enterprise to improve equipment readiness and warfighter capabilities at the tactical level.
“What we’re trying to do within the constructs of the Army’s campaign plan for additive manufacturing, is really to operationalize AM and industrialize it,” said RIA-JMTC commander, Col. Ken Letcher. “To me this is all enabled by moving into the start of industry 4.0. It’s merging old-school manufacturing, with the increased use of manufacturing aids: robots, the industrial network, advanced machines, additive manufacturing. It’s leveraging those together to make us better and more agile and adaptive to meet those Army and DoD requirements.”
Additive manufacturing is not a new technique, but has just recently been developed enough for companies to begin looking at it as a viable means of manufacturing.
“The Army has been using additive manufacturing for at least 20 years, so we’ve been using it within the Organic Industrial Base (OIB) and the research and development (R&D) community has been using it as well,” said Letcher. “We have really been dabbling in it, where we have a problem we can’t fix through conventional manufacturing we’ll turn to additive manufacturing of either metal or plastic to help solve a tooling or fixture issue. The R&D community has been using it to figure out what that next thing could be for the military, the next material, the next design. They’re going to continue to do that, but we feel the technology is mature enough to pick that fruit off the tree and roll it into the Organic Industrial Base. This is an evolution and increase in capabilities,” said Letcher.
With $20 million in funding to stand up the Center of Excellence for equipment and renovations, RIA-JMTC is buying a range of additive manufacturing technologies and enabling tools to establish capabilities in the majority of AM types. For the Rock Island workforce, the designation of RIA-JMTC as a Center of Excellence is validation of the center’s efforts to incorporate modern manufacturing technology.
“The reason for establishing the Center of Excellence here is because we are the Army’s multipurpose metal manufacturer. We make everything from small arm repair parts to as big as metalworking machinist shop sets and bridge parts and really everything in between,” said Letcher. “What’s great about our impact to readiness through the ages is how the technologies and RIA-JMTC have evolved by generation. Whatever the requirements of the Army, we evolved to meet those, whether it was saddles in the 1880s, tanks during World War II, artillery pieces and maintenance equipment, whatever those evolutionary requirements were, the great workers here at Rock Island Arsenal rose to the challenge to meet them. Given that history and given what we currently do, I think the Center of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing is a normal fit, a logical fit, here at JMTC.”
In the winter of 2018, the campaign plan for additive manufacturing was signed by Gen. Gus Perna, commanding general, Army Materiel Command, and Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary, Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. The campaign plan features five primary lines of efforts to guide implementation of additive manufacturing, a subset of advanced manufacturing, across the force. The five lines of effort span the policy, training, research and equipment needs to ensure Soldiers and Civilians are ready to integrate additive manufacturing.
There will be a lot of moving pieces and agencies working together to bring this plan forward.
“We’re going to utilize it to make tooling and fixtures to support our production requirements and then utilize it for low-rate manufacturing to support tactical requirements. Then we’re looking at, as part of the Army’s campaign plan, how do we create an Army-wide ecosystem that meshes from the policy and strategic level down to the tactical level in terms of what we should be doing at what level, what equipment is where, what training do we have for who at what level? It’s difficult because it really spans the entirety of the Army,” said Letcher. “Allied trade technicians at the tactical maintenance activities are going to be involved, engineers and artisans at the Organic Industrial Base are going to be involved, program managers within the acquisition community are going to be involved. It’s got to be a whole Army ecosystem approach.”
To implement that ecosystem, RIA-JMTC is first building a network for advanced manufacturing. This network includes industry partners, academia, Department of Defense manufacturing hubs as well as the other services.
“The Army is allowing us to adapt and that is helpful, but it’s also helpful having the right network created,” said Letcher. “I think maybe that’s the biggest lesson learned, being part of the network and the community of practice for additive manufacturing. It’s not just a commercial network with commercial companies that are either printing or providing consulting services, but it’s a DoD network. It’s an academic network. It’s that DoD manufacturing hub network. It’s the conglomeration of all that that allows us and is going to allow us to be successful.”
Modernization is another reason for the addition of advanced manufacturing within the OIB.
“Modernization doesn’t mean build a new building. It’s about improving how we manufacture a product: increasing the use of technology so we can be more efficient, we can reduce waste, we can improve quality,” said Letcher. “We need to be focused, able to modernize and improve together. Then in terms of additive manufacturing, it really is just a tool in our kit-bag for production. It’s no different in my mind than machining from a billet or pouring the steel in our foundry and machining it or printing and then post-processing. It is another tool for us, another evolution for us to produce product.”
The current concept in the beginning of implementation is to replace long-lead items to augment the supply system and create items without a source of supply. Additionally, a hybrid process can be used in house to reduce conventional manufacturing timelines.
“Conventionally, we would make a fixture and it might take us three months from the point we have a design to produce a fixture. We could print that same fixture in a couple days and then machine off the very specific surfaces that would be critical and then you could go into production in a week verses going into production in a month, two months, three months. So, then you’re still getting your end product which is produced conventionally and faster, but you’re doing a hybrid additive process with conventional process to get after Army readiness,” said Randl Besse, RIA-JMTC additive manufacturing project manager. “Internally for facilities like us and potentially other mom and pop shops, other manufacturers, it’s going to make a huge difference.”
Currently RIA-JMTC has three Fused Deposition Modeling machines with polymer capabilities and had been funded to purchase additional machines that can produce different materials. RIA-JMTC is also looking to the future for additive and advanced manufacturing applications.
“Right now the Army plans to use Additive Manufacturing for replacements, one-for-one. Next it will be replacing a heavy part for a lighter-weight part. After that it will be from scratch designing for additive and combining multiple parts into one” said Besse. “We’re still very early on in the entire process, but ideally, in the long run, when a Soldier has an immediate need for a repair part whose lead time is too long for the unit’s needs, they will be able to reach back to us at RIA-JMTC for a rapid solution to a readiness driver.”
Implementing the campaign plan for additive manufacturing isn’t a process Letcher takes lightly.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right things in the right place and that they’re complementary and we don’t just have stuff all over the place because it’s the next thing,” said Letcher. “We have the right system in place to have the right equipment, the right people, the right training at the right places.”
Timeliness is another important aspect of implementing the advanced manufacturing plan.
“We’re not just doing it to use this new toy, we’re doing it because this is the best means of manufacturing available to us today,” said Letcher. “I think if we approach it that way and use that network we’ll have success, but the key is we have to have success in a timely manner. It can’t take us nine months to make something. We’ve got to do it in a matter of days. We’ve got to really do it at the speed of war. That’s the rub. I’ve got a little note on my wall, we finished World War II in less than a year, from D-Day to VE-Day. You can do anything in a year. I want to do it in a matter of days.”
The Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence will reach initial operating capacity in the spring of 2019 and is expected to reach full-operating capacity in 2021.