3D printing technology, Direct Digital manufacturing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) has been around for over three decades, when inventor Chuck Hull first tested it in 1983. However, this technology has yet to make it to the mainstream of manufacturing industry. Manufacturers and consumers are still not very clear of the concept and how it can be exploited. That being so, various think tanks, economists, academia and innovators are convinced that this technology will bring a paradigm shift in the process of manufacturing with some even going to the extent of equating current status of AM to the steam engine in 1765.
3D printers are capable of delivering finished products with all parts fully assembled. This is based on a computerised plan or blueprint wherein layer upon layer of plastic, metal, or other materials are used which are fused using a one or a combination of lasers, heat, ultrasound, electron beams, chemicals or glue. For the purpose of standardisation the American Society for Testing and Materials International has identified the following categories of AM:
- Binder Jetting
- Directed Energy Deposition/Laser Cladding
- Material Extrusion
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Sheet Lamination
- Vat Photopolymerisation
Mass production is the strength of the traditional manufacturing process, however, AM takes the cake in customisation. This aspect itself tilts the balance decisively in favour of AM because the Economy of Scales does not apply to it!
Prospective Employment in Indian Army’s Supply Chain Management
Indian Army has on its inventory myriad weapon systems and associated support platforms requiring huge amount of spares and facilities for maintenance, repair and overhaul. When combined with the varied and inhospitable terrain as well as hostile operating conditions under which the Indian Army operates as a routine, it presents anextremely complex picture requiring a herculean effort to plan and execute. Also, the personnel deployed whether in peace or field conditions need to be maintained as well.
Advantages of AM
- In-Situ Production. The aim of any supply chain is to deliver the “right part” at the “right place” at the “right time” and in the “right quantity.” The traditional methods of manufacture and supply usually fall short on one or more counts mentioned above. The AM on the other hand presents the following advantages:
- Customized spare parts/ items for specific purposes
- In-situ production
- On demand production
- Production of requisite quantities
- Fighting Obsolescence. Indian Army operates a No. of platforms acquired both indigenously and from various foreign countries. Some of this equipment is quite old as is the case with air defence and mechanised forces as well as engineers. The OEMs in many cases have shut down the assembly lines for these platforms or have gone on to their upgrades. This presents a major issue of acquisition of spares in acceptable cost and time framework. AM can provide the answer to this vital issue facing the Indian Army.
- Single End Use Part & Precise Prototyping.Whena vital component is required in a time critical environment, 3D printing providesthe freedom to design a single end-use part or build complex, precise and realistic prototypes with moving parts. This also allows for evaluationthat whether or not a part will function as intended.
- Customisation. This aspect has been conclusively demonstrated in the field of health care and medical tooling. Customised limbs and organs using living cells of the recipients have been successfully ‘printed’ and implanted. This is just one example of customisation and the list is endless.
- Cost Management by Reducing Waste. Many spare parts are built with expensive materials such as titanium. Wastage rates with conventional subtractive manufacturing can be as high as 80–90 percent of the material being used. AM can bring the wastage rate down to 10–20 percent.
Issues of Concern
The advantages of AM are tremendous; however there are certain issues that need to be addressed first:
- Requisite Technology. There is a long way to go for the AM technology to mature and its adoption by the developing nations such as India. While the USA as expected is the leader in this field with its defence industry and concerned defence institutions including DARPA making remarkable progress, Indian institutes such as DRDO need to gear up for it.
- Intellectual Property Rights(IPR). To reverse engineer the spare parts may need to be examined in light of the IPR. Further the digital blueprints prepared may need to be patented as well.
- Training. The massive effort required for training the personnel both at the design and the manufacturing ends cannot be overstated. This will also be applicable to the interim actions of supply chain management and preparation of requisite raw materials.
- Cyber Security. The very basis of AM is the CAD files and losing these can seriously jeopardise the operations of the field formations. There has to be a fool proof arrangement for cyber security especially in the battlefield environment.
- Quality Assurance. This may be a concern when a part is manufactured in the field and Operationalized without adequate quality checks and inspections. This would require different protocols pre certifying the raw material and the printers themselves rather than the finished product.
AM has the potential to be the solution that the Indian Army needs to substantially cut down its operational costs while maintaining the highest levels of serviceability and operational readiness. Supply chains with AM can help overcome the need for large, centralized production facilities to achieve economies of scale. AM wouldovercome the need to transport multiple parts and food products to their end users, especiallyhelping the bases which get cut off for months and require a major stocking effort each year. The ‘on demand’manufacturing obliterates the accurate forecasting needsof the supply chain capacity. As and when the printer technology and universal raw materials are available for manufacturing these AM assisted supply chains would become that much more efficient and viable.