Revolutionizing an entire supply chain: additive manufacturing and the US Army

The US military’s logistics and distribution system is one of the largest in the world, costing US taxpayers over $34bn per year. How will additive manufacturing change the way distribution is done in the Army?

Although the United States Army is known around the world for its extreme operational reach, high-technology weapons systems, and highly trained Soldiers, it is also one of the world’s foremost logistics organizations. With the US Department of Defense spending over $2Bn in transportation-related logistics costs in 2017 alone [1], new technologies like additive manufacturing have the potential to revolutionize how the Army approaches logistics – particularly how it procures and distributes spare parts across the world.

Current Army Supply Chain System

Military equipment is often extremely expensive and not replaced for decades. On the flip side, it must always be ready for combat. As such, there exists a constant requirement to maintain and repair items as close as possible to the battle – generating a great and unpredictable demand for repair parts wherever the Army operates. To fill this demand, the US military operates a colossal supply system with over $34Bn in goods and services acquired annually from 12,000 suppliers in the United Stated that are then shipped worldwide to over 30,000 maintenance locations [2]. Employing over 25,000 personnel, this is a complex, hierarchical, and linear system which requires the generation of excess buffer stock to limit stockouts in volatile and uncertain environments [3]. When stockouts do occur, manufacturers back in the US are required to build parts on demand which are then shipped to Army units around the world – creating significant cost and lead-time variability [4].

The Promise of Additive Manufacturing

As mentioned above, additive manufacturing promises to revolutionize the Army’s supply system, allowing repair parts and other equipment to be manufacture in situ on the battlefield [5] on-demand. By moving the manufacture of spare parts as close as possible to the point of need, 3D printing on the battlefield “significantly improves the ability to respond to demand variability by enabling the on-demand manufacture of a needed part, and in doing so minimizes the need to carry excess finished goods inventory.” [4] Thus, not only will the advent of additive manufacturing reduce costs and the Army’s logistics burden but will also simplify the process of repairing or producing spare parts, allowing the Army to make critical gains in readiness [6]. Given that additive manufacturing could allow much resupply work to take place digitally, it also has the potential to reduce the number of logistics convoys employed. Given that these convoys often come under attack and are one of the Army’s most deadly activities [7], additive manufacturing could have the added benefit of saving lives.

The Army’s Response

Weighed down by a host of legal requirements, the Army’s new technology research, acquisition, and implementation process is typically slow and unwieldy [8]. However, given the vast gains in effectiveness possible with additive manufacturing, the Army has been quick to move forward with industry on several fronts [6].

In the short term, the Army is moving to further test and implement several pilot projects aimed at better understanding the impact of additive manufacturing. The Army’s RFAB system will further be rolled out for use in the field at key events, a process that started with the Pacific Pathways major training event in mid-2018 [9]. Additionally, the Army is exploring mobile building technologies and has developed a mobile laboratory being used in Afghanistan that rapidly prototypes and builds new equipment at the point of need [10].

In the longer term, the Army is integrating its efforts in additive manufacturing with the wider Department of Defense acquisition process, which has recently developed a roadmap setting the strategic direction and next steps required to create a robust additive manufacturing ecosystem [6]

Going Forward: Recommendations and Strategic Questions

Given the cost-savings inherent in a supply chain that utilizes additive manufacturing, organizations across the DoD are independently building capabilities in this area, creating waste, duplication of efforts, and increasing development costs [4]. While already mentioned by a Deloitte University report on this topic, it’s worth repeating a recommendation for a singular head of additive manufacturing to be named at the DoD level – allowing strategic guidance and cost-parameters to flow from the Pentagon. Additionally, I recommend that the Army undertake a comprehensive study to understand and quantify the cost-savings and supply chain transformations associated with additive manufacturing. In this way, the Army could answer the question of how beneficial additive manufacturing would be – weighing the costs associated with purchasing many thousands of printers with the current system.

Going forward, there are two, more general, questions that the Army must answer as it rolls out additive manufacturing technologies and sets its strategic priorities in the years to come:

  1. How will the Army shape its vast and hierarchical logistics structure to adapt to a potentially more decentralized supply chain brought about by new technologies?
  2. How can the Army revamp its technology acquisition process to continuously stay ahead of competitors?

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[1] United States Department of Defense, Operation and Maintenance Overview Budget Estimates Fiscal Year 2018, accessed November 2018.

[2] United States Department of Defense, Defense Logistics Agency, Strategic Plan 2018-2026, accessed November 2018.

[3] COL Scott Haraburda. “Transforming military support processes from logistics to supply chain management.” US Army, February 29, 2016.

[4] Matthew Louis, Tom Seymour, Jim Joyce, “3D opportunity in the DoD,” Deloitte University Press, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/additive-manufacturing-defense-3d-printing/DUP_1064-3D-Opportunity-DoD_MASTER1.pdf,  accessed November 2018

[5] Shawn Brimley, Ben Fitzgerald, Kelley Sayler, “Game Changers – Disruptive Technology and US Defense Strategy,” Center for a New American Security, https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS_Gamechangers_BrimleyFitzGeraldSayler.pdf?mtime=20160906081305, accessed November 2018

[6] “Additive Manufacturing” US Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command press release, August 8, 2017.

[7] MAJ Damian Green, “The Future of Ground Logistics: Convoys in the Department of Defense” (MA, diss, School of Advanced Military Studies, 2011)

[8] Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisition Process,” Report GAO-15-469, June 2015.

[9] C. Todd Lopez, “3-D printed grenade launcher only tip of future manufacturing possibilities for Army.” US Army, May 19, 2017.

[10] US Army, Rapid Equipping Force, “Projects,” http://www.ref.army.mil/, accessed November 2018.

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4 thoughts on “Revolutionizing an entire supply chain: additive manufacturing and the US Army

  1. For your second question, I would argue the Army and DOD area already making great strides in their acquisition agility through the expanded use of the Other Transactional Authority (i.e. CSO, Consortium etc.) There are also other Army offices that do rapid acquisition and fielding such as the Rapid Capabilities Office and Rapid Equipping Force which expedite traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation contracts. There is certainly a long way to go, but I believe making bidding more transparent and accessible and having a focus on measurable fielding times will greatly benefit military acquisition.

  2. It is cool to imagine a future in which military assets can be maintained in short-order, wherever they are used, without incurring significant overhead expenses. I would propose that, in the long-run, additive manufacturing technologies will allow for this to happen. This said, unless the Army wishes to build manufacturing facilities in strategic locations around the world (which it might consider, given the extant footprint of Army depots), I do not believe 3D printing will have a significant impact in the near and medium-term. The most significant reason I hold this belief is that additive manufacturing tools are expensive and single purpose: a printer that is used for aluminum components cannot be used for rubbers and plastics, and vice versa[1]. The Army could procure a large number of 3D printer types for each of its repair bases, but this would be very expensive and require creation of a large global workforce of skilled operators and managers to oversee these “factories”. Given this, I do not see a way to use 3D printing tools to maintain military assets at scale in the near and mid-term.

    [1] 3D Systems, “3D Systems’ ProJet MJP5600 MultiJet 3D Printer,” https://www.3dsystems.com/3d-printers/projet-mjp-5600, accessed November 2018.

  3. This is a very interesting topic, and seems like a great way to take advantage of the benefits of 3D printing on a massive scale. In army operations, I think the speed that 3D printing can provide can not only save money, but also lives. If the current budget is over $34 billion, the dollar impact of the new technology could be drastic, though I wonder if the technology is ready. I imagine that the army is very set in its hierarchical structure because of the extreme importance of safety and security in the operations. I think that the new technology will need to be refined and tested extensively before it can be deployed by the government on a large scale.

  4. The article is great at bringing to light the vast amount of opportunities that the DoD has to improve its logistics, and at the same time improve the Just In Time supply of necessary equipment. My question with the availability to utilize 3D printing as a method to circumvent the current supply process has to do with the multiple iron clad contracts that the DoD has in place with suppliers to issue parts. In many cases the suppliers that the DoD utilizes have patents over some of the necessary equipment that must be supplied for specific weapon systems, thus if the DoD begins printing parts for those weapon systems the suppliers might consider the DoD breaching exclusivity contracts. My question would push forward the argument by asking if the DoD with 3D printing can negotiate better terms from their suppliers, and if they can also utilize this new technology as a cost saving strategy for future weapon system negotiations.

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