Forward-thinking contracting firms now harness the potential of 3D printing, using it to produce everything from prototypes to production-ready military materials— while gaining a competitive edge in contract awards.
3D printing's flexibility enables contractors to respond rapidly to always-changing contract requirements. Instead of investing in new tooling or molds, you can simply adjust your digital design and produce modified parts in hours or days. This adaptability is a game-changer in an industry where unforeseen issues can derail a project and often do.
In this blog post, we'll explore how 3D printing revolutionizes military operations and materials, detailing specific examples of its successful implementation. Could you soon see yourself in 3D, too?
Lockheed Martin: Fast fighter-jet cockpit & satellite development
One of the key advantages of 3D printing in government contracting is its ability to accelerate the development process through rapid prototyping.
A prime example is Lockheed Martin's 3D printing of the Full Mission Simulator cockpit for its F-35 Lightning II jet program. Through the technique, Lockheed can significantly reduce the time and cost required for prototyping and testing various cockpit components.
The ability to quickly produce complex geometric parts reduces Lockheed Martin's overall count of conventional metal parts typically required to assemble the F-35 cockpit, by as much as 70%. This results in fewer opportunities for failure points in the entire assembly. 3D printing has saved Lockheed Martin $3 million per unit for the F-35 program—a $45 million savings overall.
This past summer, Lockheed finished a critical design review of its satellites —Tranche 1 of the transport layer—as part of the Space Development Agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. The design review involved using a 3D-printed replica of a satellite vehicle for testing purposes.
Lockheed’s 3D-print approach not only streamlines the development process but also enhances the contractor's ability to respond quickly to changing customer requirements, ultimately increasing their chances of winning government contracts.
SpaceX: Customization made easy
Government contracts often come with unique requirements demanding complex solutions. This is where 3D printing shines, allowing contracting firms to easily meet these demands through customized, intricate designs. An excellent illustration of this is SpaceX's Starship project.
SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has been using 3D printing extensively in developing its Starship spacecraft. This ambitious project aims to revolutionize space travel by making it more accessible and cost-effective. 3D printing plays a huge part in this: It's crucial in manufacturing customized parts for the Starship, such as its Raptor engines and heat shields.
With 3D printing, SpaceX can rapidly produce complex components tailored to the specific requirements of the Starship, all while maintaining cost efficiency. This ability to create bespoke solutions is highly attractive to government agencies, such as Space Force, who seek contractors like SpaceX for its most challenging projects.
General Electric: Streamline supply chains & production
Once a prototype is approved, the real challenge begins—production. Historically, mass-producing detailed components required specialized tooling, which can be costly and time-consuming to develop. However, 3D printing is changing the game, offering both agility and economy.
General Electric's (GE) success story in the field of 3D printing illustrates this point. GE Aviation, a division of the conglomerate, is using 3D printing to manufacture intricate fuel nozzles for its Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP) engines, which power a range of aircraft. GE crafts these nozzles using advanced metal 3D printing techniques, allowing for highly complex geometries previously unwieldy to produce through traditional manufacturing methods.
Through 3D printing, GE Aviation can consolidate the number of components in the fuel nozzle from 20 to just one, reducing production complexity and the risk of component failure. This efficiency not only results in cost savings but also enhances the reliability of the engines.
LEAP engine designs power aircraft that require up to 35,000 pounds of thrust. These engines initially took flight in 2016, offering operators 15% better fuel efficiency than earlier jet engines. Each engine features 18 to 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles that are complicated— yet completely dense—and are created much faster than through traditional methods.
Thanks to 3D printing technology, GE Aviation has secured many contracts to supply LEAP engines to major prime players in the aerospace industry, including Boeing and Airbus.
Army Corps of Engineers & ICON: Constructing Barracks
Environmental considerations play a significant role in government contracting, with many agencies actively seeking contractors who can provide eco-friendly solutions. 3D printing offers a sustainable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods, reducing waste and energy consumption.
One notable example: The US Army Corps of Engineers partners with several private-sector firms to 3D-print actual housing infrastructure in remote areas.
The Corps and its contractors 3D-print concrete barracks, bunkers, and other structures in challenging environments. Designed by Logan Architecture and structurally engineered by Fort Structures, the liveable structures use 3D technology company ICON's next-generation Vulcan construction system and proprietary material to deliver sustainable and resilient housing that is longer-lasting than traditional buildings.
The barracks are the largest 3D-printed structures in the Americas, at more than 5,700 square feet each. They save labor costs, reduce planning time, and their learnings will increase the construction speed of future facilities.
By 3D printing building components on-site using locally sourced materials, the Army Corps and its contractors reduce the need for transporting heavy construction materials over long distances, thus decreasing the environmental footprint of their projects.
Boeing: Collaboration & innovation ecosystems
Contractors increasingly recognize the value of collaboration by using open-innovation ecosystems. 3D printing fosters collaboration by enabling firms to easily share digital designs and interact with various partners, including startups and research institutions.
For instance, Boeing has initiated partnerships with various organizations to advance 3D printing technology in aerospace. Through these collaborations, Boeing has explored new materials, manufacturing techniques, and applications, ultimately enhancing its competitiveness in government contracting opportunities.
One such startup collaboration is with AML3D, which offers a metal 3D printing solution. Using a combination of welding, robotics, materials engineering, and software, the Australian manufacturer has developed a 3D printing system capable of creating complex shapes—both prototype and real-use aluminum aircraft parts, the latter of which meet AS9100D quality assurance requirements for “flying” components.
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- Thomas: Lockheed Martin 3D Prints F-35 FMS Cockpit
- E-Plus-3D: The Effect of SpaceX’s Starship Launch on Metal 3D Printing
- 3Dprint.com: GE Aviation Announces 100,000th 3D Printed Fuel Nozzle Shipped from Auburn Plant
- U.S. Department of Defense Article: DoD Building Largest 3D-Printed Structures in Western Hemisphere
- 3D Natives Article: AML3D Expands its Presence in 3D Printing in Aeronautics Through Boeing Partnership