nformation technology is a great leveller. Once what could be printed only by big publishing houses, now can be printed at a shop with no restriction on minimum numbers of copies per order. Video cameras in some of the mobile phones are far superior to high-end professional cameras of yesteryears. Additionally quality & ease of editing is far superior. One does not need access to media house to air his/her views; social media provides the relevant platform. Communication and cryptography is no more limited to military and diplomats, everyone can have it. In a similar trend it is now a reality in manufacturing products. Three dimensional (3D) printing will change the manufacturing sector in similar manner, where small manufacturers (even some people from home) can ‘print’ the real hardware objects.
3D printing is a process of additive manufacturing solid objects, where instead of cutting, milling, filing or casting an object, it is created by adding layer after layer with the help of 3D Computer Aided Drafting (CAD), software and robotic machine (printer) which ‘prints’ the product.
Chuck W. Hull of 3D System Corp. created the first 3D printer in 1984. Since then the variety and methodologies are increasing while price is coming down. 3D printers cost anything between $400 and $500,000 and products vary from sand-epoxy, to gold and titanium. As most of the major patents are completing their patent life in 2013-14, it is expected to multiply the usage of this technology in coming years.
3D printing has application in construction, industrial design, military, aerospace, space exploration, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, medical industry, bioengineering & human parts, fashion, jewellery, apparel, education, food, and much more. In fact its limit is limited by human imagination.
The additive 3D printing can generally be created faster than subtractive process. Subtractive process is also limited by size, shape and reach of manufacturing devices; hence many complex shapes cannot be created. A mix of additive printing with fine refining by subtractive action can achieve accuracies better than 50 microns. Complex designs can also be made of wax which can then be used for foundry patterns.
There are many types of methods and materials which can be used in 3D printing (please see Table for indicative list). Some methods use grained material and binding epoxy fusing to create 3D solid object; other uses deposition of soften/liquidated material; still other uses powder/liquid materials getting solidified layer-afterlayer under concentrated laser/ electronic heating beam; and there are also methods using chemical reactions of two or more materials getting solidified when coming in contact with each other. The 3D printed product are made from sand, paper, glass, wax, ceramic, thermoplastic, photopolymer, metals, stainless steel, titanium, cobalt and many other alloys & mixed materials. The 3D printers are available from a very small size of desktop printing to room size printers.
Defence forces, especially navy and forward deployed army are isolated from their main bases. Forward posts requires a long logistic tail to maintain them while naval ships are required to return to base to collect the stores and provisions. Modern machines are complex and their breakdown is unpredictable. The advance post/ replenishment ships are thus required to maintain huge inventories of spare parts. These consume large physical space and manpower. Even then some parts may not be available at the critical juncture. It is often said that for want of a nail a ship can sink; a 3D printer can instantly print that nail. Some of the photographs will illustrate that practically anything can be printed. Recently a Texas group printed a gun and successfully fired it, raking up debate to ban 3D printing. NASA has printed a moving-parts miniature jet engine.
It would obviate carrying large inventories but enough of raw material with 3D printer which can take care of a reasonable part of the spare part inventory. A replenish-ship can get soft copy of spare part from base and print it to provide to forward deployed ships and submarines. Thus in place of racks of spare part, soft-copy of these components can be carried along. Even these soft-copies can be received from headquarters through networks.
Using 3D printer disposable systems can be designed and implemented by field commanders. There have been successful experiments on designing and flying disposable UAVs One of the advantages of 3D printer is prototyping (producing only one piece) as well as reshaping and soft testing prior to production. This functionality can be put to many innovative uses in battlefield. For example forward post can design a projectile to achieve a particular trajectory to the target in certain case specific terrain and wind conditions. A rifle handle can be designed by unit and replaced to meet specific operations without going back to extremely long cycle to DRDO and production. Many such situations which are presently unimaginable can be achieved using 3D printers. US forces have deployed 3D printers in Afghanistan and lessons are being learnt every day.
Medical support in one such another such field where 3D printers can prove to be life-saving. Today if a solider / sailor has head injury in forward deployed area it is nearly impossible to save him. Bone injuries can lead to lifetime deformities. 3D printer can print person-specify bone or other such part to save lives. Custom implants and support can be save precious limb and life.
3D printing therefore, is the next revolution in manufacturing sector. Innovative thinking will decide the limits of this emerging technology. India and especially Armed Forces must start work in this direction. Though it is already few decades late but unshackling of many patents in this field can boost the innovation and rapid emergence.
The author Commander Mukesh Saini (Retd.) is a VP- IT Security, Essel Group and former National Information Security Coordinator (GOI)