The U.S. Army is getting ready to cut the ribbon on the world’s largest metal 3D printer – a hulking feat of engineering big enough to churn out full-sized combat vehicles and even small boats. And an innovative printing method will make the parts the printer makes more rugged and resilient than what has been possible in the past.
The Jointless Hull Large Format Tool will be delivered to the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center in Illinois by next fall. Soon after it will begin churning out projects not only for the Army but also for other U.S. military service branches and private industry contractors.
At 30 feet long by 20 feet wide and 12 feet tall, the printer is a rectangular behemoth that requires ladders just to allow technicians to perform maintenance on it. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, remains a developing technology with practical limitations concerning the materials that can be used and the durability of the printed products, so Army leaders decided to push the envelope with a machine an order of magnitude bigger than anything in existence.
“The Army decided it would be a good idea to come up with a larger-scale 3D printer for hulls and large parts using metal,” Nick Schrup, a project manager at the center, told Sandboxx News in an interview.
The Army is taking 3D printing to another level
Because the center is home to the Army’s Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellent, the decision to locate the printer at Rock Island was an easy one.
“Our technicians are highly skilled at additive 3D printing as well as subtractive machining. Traditionally, we have a very strong skill set here for our machinists,” Schrup said. “So it just made sense to put it in at Rock Island.”
The Army invested $11 million to build the machine and contracted Ingersoll Machine Tools to build it. Other partners in the development effort include Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center, Siemens Digital Industries, Meld Manufacturing, LIFT, and Astro America. Total funding for the project tops $45 million.
According to the 3D Printing Media Network, Ingersoll has built some of the largest additive manufacturing machines currently available.
“The program’s vision is to combine large format machine tools that have been historically proven in various industries with additive manufacturing technologies to reduce production lead times,” Davide Sher writes for the publication. “The resulting capability will enable metal additive manufacturing on a previously unseen or unavailable scale, not only for ground vehicle systems but for all large-scale applications. The ability to print such large metal parts will open up new applications and expand the uses of additive manufacturing processes.”
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A novel printing technology in the Army’s service
The printer’s size will eliminate the need to print smaller metal parts and weld them together, creating seams and joints that create weak spots on the finished vehicle or platform. It also incorporates a game-changing new technology — additive friction stir deposition — that further eliminates the need for weld points and increases strength and safety of printed products.
Through this process, metal materials are brought very close to melting point, but never fully reach a liquid state; instead, they are laid down in highly malleable solid-state layers that can then be shaped and formed. A five-axis milling head also allows the Jointless Hull to machine as it prints, drilling away unneeded materials to help the final product take shape.
“In machining, large parts like that can take a long time,” Schrup said. “When you’re machining as you go, and that is just more efficient. And then it opens up new design potential that you could never do with forging or casting.”
Schrup explained that complex product designs often contain awkwardly placed or hard-to-reach cavities that might be impossible or prohibitively expensive to excavate with a machining drill after a component is fully printed. The Jointless Hull doesn’t have that problem.
“As you’re building layer upon layer – you’re building it up from the plate – you can put in holes anywhere you want or features anywhere you want,” he said.
Finally, the Jointless Hull can print with multiple metals, including aluminum, steel, and titanium, using its layering approach. This ability is extremely rare for metal printers, Schrup said, and played into the Army’s decision to select the contractors it did for the project, including additive manufacturing innovator Ingersoll, and MELD Manufacturing, which invented the additive friction stir deposition process.
“You can start with a lighter-weight material structure, and then have a ballistic material on the outside,” he said. “So it’s lighter, faster and it’s safer, and you’ll have that ballistic material right on there.”
The design and method also favor innovation by allowing for relatively rapid design adjustments, Schrup said. Between casting, welding, and treatment of parts to increase resilience, making a design change can take six months for a traditional metal 3D printer. The Jointless Hull, he said, will cut that time in half.
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The Army’s 3D printer could also have applications for aerospace platforms
Once active, the printer will be used to print a spectrum of vehicle hulls – “any vehicles carrying warfighters,” Schrup said. There’s also interest, he said, in the printer’s applications for aerospace platforms, although it’s early in the planning process and he declined to say more about what aerospace parts might be printed. Within the U.S. military, the Navy and the Marine Corps have already expressed interest in using the printer, he said.
“They’re just asking about the machine and excited – they’re kicking around ideas,” Schrup said.
According to a 2021 Army release, a smaller version of the 3D printer will also be delivered. Able to print parts about a meter long, wide and tall, that printer will be installed at Ground Vehicle Systems Command’s Detroit Arsenal Prototype Integration Facility and used to test out and develop concepts and designs at small scale that may later become projects for the big printer.
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The Army held a commemoration event for the Jointless Hull on October 24, inviting leaders and local officials to celebrate its final phases of development and installation.
“There are a lot of big, heavy metal parts within the Army inventory that additive manufacturing is not even an option to make simply because they don’t fit within the build envelop of the current machines available in industry,” said Joseph Kott, GVSC Materials Division Advanced Manufacturing Branch Chief, said in a prior statement.
“This new machine will provide Rock Island Arsenal with an additive capability that doesn’t exist anywhere else to not only produce parts for the Army but also across the DoD.”
Feature Image: Jointless Hull Large Format Tool. (Courtesy U.S. Army)
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