DLA aims to cut costs and improve parts support using 3D printing

Inside a massive 3D printer, a delicate head moves at lightning speed to precisely deposit heated plastic layer by layer to create a hardened part. DLA is researching whether 3D printing could help reduce costs and improve readiness. Photo by David McNally

The Defence Logistics Agency (DLA) started evaluating whether 3D printing could lower the cost and reduce lead times for hard-to-source, obsolete and back-ordered parts.

DLA’s research and development team is working with a contractor to identify by September the first 10 items for which it will pursue 3D modelling and manufacturing, said Kelly Morris, chief of research and development for DLA Logistics Operations. They are trying to identify hard-to-source parts that are critical safety items for their demonstration.

Some of the parts considered for 3D modelling are interior panels for aircraft, bolts, fittings and ductwork.

The process starts with a 3D technical data package, or digital blueprint that depicts item’s specifications. To have the initial parts additively manufactured, DLA will competitively source with subcontractors that already have the capability.

According to Morris, engineering support activities for each of the military services are responsible for testing and certifying that additively manufactured parts meet structural standards.

DLA will then work with service engineers and logisticians to figure out how to best incorporate additive manufacturing into ordering and repair processes. DLA will analyse the costs involved in making the parts.

Defence Department officials have become more interested in additive manufacturing as the department works to increase innovation and embrace new technologies. In July, DLA Logistics Operations Director Navy Rear Adm. Vincent Griffith outlined the agency’s progress in additive manufacturing to David Berteau, assistant secretary of defence for logistics and material readiness.

Morris said, “It’s important to us that DoD implements additive manufacturing standards and policies. The services are doing their own thing right now because the technology is still very much in the research and development phase, but we need uniform practices throughout DoD to make this really work.”

DLA is helping to shape DoD’s additive manufacturing program by creating a repeatable process to identify parts that are suitable for additive manufacturing.

The Navy is already using additive manufacturing to print items ranging from plastic syringes to oil caps. And Army researchers are investigating whether food like pizza included in field rations could be made via 3D printing.