The Defence Support Network (DSN) accounts for 36% of the total Ministry of Defence (MOD) budget, which equates to £12.8 billion in FY16/17. The DSN comprises MOD and industry partners who aspire to deliver world-beating, agile equipment and logistic support to front line commands, ensuring that the systems deployed are available and sustainable.
It is widely acknowledged that the MOD faces significant financial pressures and a highly ambitious Equipment Plan. Defence has taken principally the same approach to global logistics for several decades. We therefore suggest a review of Defence’s fundamental resupply model and encourage MOD to leverage emerging and maturing technologies to deliver the responsive and efficient support network that DSN is pursuing.
Described as ‘the second revolution’, additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing has the potential to impact right across the DSN. It can accelerate product development cycles, eliminate tooling costs, open up new manufacturing strategies, drastically simplify supply chains and deliver new capabilities, shapes and structures. Fundamentally, it is a technology that allows users to build, layer-by-layer, three dimensional solid objects of virtually any shape using a 3D printer.
Additive manufacturing is a maturing technology, McKinsey Global research suggests that AM could have an economic impact of up to $550 billion per year by 2025. It is currently capable of handling materials ranging from titanium to biological tissue and produce fully functional components such as aerospace components, batteries, transistors, joints, prosthetic limbs and human organs.
Additive manufacturing is demonstrating an increasing applicability and viability for Defence. The clearest potential opportunity is in the ability to produce complex objects autonomously in a remote environment. This could enable the printing of damaged components on-demand in hostile environments, secure sensitive parts against in-transit interception, provide cost savings via a reduced supply chain complexity and bandwidth, and increase availability by reducing cannibalisation rates and addressing legacy equipment issues where industry can no longer support.
At present, MOD warehousing provides storage for a diverse range of spare parts. Despite a high throughput at the warehouses, many items will rarely be used and some may never be needed. DHL estimated in 2016, that warehouses on average suffer from excess inventory shares of more than 20%. Effective inventory management is not just about having available stock, but about having the right stock at the right time. The National Audit Office reports a 49% increase in cannibalisation from April 2012 to March 2017 with 34% of parts demand past their required delivery date with no forecast due date for their receipt.
Industry and academia are demonstrating AM’s growing capabilities by producing bionic organs and tool-less assembly UAVs. The US military has been exploring the use of AM in theatre to reduce lead times and provide access to critical parts in remote situations. In 2014 the US Army used containerised AM facilities in Afghanistan for the production of simple components. Such was the in-situ demand this capability was significantly expanded to deliver solutions to emerging issues at a pace un-matched by the standard supply chain. Also in 2014 the US Navy installed 3D printers on the USS Essex to train sailors to print needed spare parts and weapon components. In 2016, the first metallic flight critical part was flown on board an Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
As a capability that has applications across Defence and requiring an integrated approach from concept phase forward, AM naturally fits with Director of Capabilities (DCap) in Joint Forces Command and will require a multi-skilled delivery team, with legal and technical expertise, to address emerging issues around Intellectual Property Rights and liability. From a fielding perspective Additive Manufacturing should be tested in non-operational environments and then deployed in a suitable operational environment to prove the concept and allow the opportunity for detailed analysis of the capability.
In the short term AM can be used economically to produce low volume complex and bespoke components and re-produce legacy components that are no longer supported by the supply chain as industry moves forward. Printer throughput is improving as industry is developing new technologies that have demonstrated significant performance improvement without loss of print quality. In the mid-term this will enable large production runs at the front line and potentially negate a significant part of the standard supply chain.
Article by Mal Fox and Thomas Fox, RINA