The U.S. military is pursuing technological advances to offset anti-access and area denial. One of these advances is hypersonic weaponry, shooting something at five times the speed of sound to strike a missiles before they even launch. The difficuly of these weapons is that they require exotic materials and configurations – some of which may not even be possible with traditional manufacturing process. The solution? Enter 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

While additive manufacturing has been most recently tied to hypersonics, it has a slightly longer history in the defense world as a cost reduction tool. Lockheed Martin, for example, has pursued additive manufacturing capabilities to assemble satellites in short time cycles, with less production waste, and to slash costs. Boeing has also applied additive manufacturing to the production of space assets, stating that the innovative manufacturing process helps them reach their goal of, “deliver[ing] the spacecraft to our customer on time and on budget.”

The Defense Logistics Agency has also been looking into additive manufacturing to see whether the process could help lower costs and improve parts support. For some legacy platforms, parts are hard to find. For crews out on Navy ships, being able to assemble parts onboard may allow greater mission flexibility. The ability to manufacture parts on-site could also reduce excess inventory. The Navy, for example, found $7.5 billion worth of excess inventory in 2008.

There are then two major benefits that additive manufacturing could bring to defense acquisitions: creating unique and/or exotic structures to allow new or improved weaponry and platforms, and reducing costs, time schedules, and excess inventories. The Government Accountability Office concluded this as well, stating that, “additive manufacturing will likely be best for parts requiring properties and features not achievable through conventional manufacturing or for low-volume parts, such as custom items and tooling.”

So additive manufacturing could be useful for not only reducing costs, but could  be applied to some of the trickiest problems the military is facing. Certain capabilities, like hypersonic weaponry, might never even be possible with venturing into new techniques like additive manufacturing.

The history of 3D printing within the Department of Defense, however, stems from a desire for cost savings. It could be argued that without the desire to use the technology to reduce costs, the Department of Defense and defense contractors would not have pursued additive manufacturing tools as rigorously without the need to reduce costs in light of a shrinking budget. Additive manufacturing may, then, both alter the defense acquisition system internallyby reducing costswhile also changing what can be built.

Additive manufacturing will not solve every problem in the defense acquisition system, however, and there is a risk that it could be abused by those seeking to mandate ‘one-size-fit-all’ solutions. To preempt this, policymakers should be aware of the challenges that additive manufacturing has to overcome to be viable.

There are some technical issues that have to be addressed. It is difficult to get the same product quality, even using the same printers and materials. There has not been significant need to sort this issue out, as additive manufacturing has so far primarily been used for prototyping. As the technique becomes integrated into direct manufacturing, in-field manufacturing, or repairs, this issue is going to need to be fixed.

Operationally, there are also limited design tools (CAD programs developed specifically for 3D printing), as well as a currently under-trained workforce. There are stories of engineers not realizing the full innovative potential of additive manufacturing. There are also limited supply chains for the materials needed, which will need to be ramped up. Intellectual property rights are already an issue for defense contracting. Because the Pentagon reserves the rights to use proprietary information as needed, or pass it on to third parties if it deems necessary, businesses that rely on such information are hesitant to work the military. Additive manufacturing will only exacerbate these concerns as more and more products are reproducible with easy-to-share digital information. As such, the Department of Defense (DOD) will have to reform how it approaches intellectual property to fully utilize 3D printing. Internally, it can decide to issue contract with more intellectual property rights for contractors. Finally, the Pentagon will have to make sure it does not unnecessarily duplicate research efforts across a multitude of separate programs, an issue the GAO has already highlightedalthough pilot programs for experimenting across services may be useful.

If these challenges can be overcome, then additive manufacturing may be able to both allow the building of innovative platforms and reduce acquisition costs. The benefits of the former, however, have been made possible in part by the pursuit of the latter. Without the cost constraints that led defense contractors to pursue additive manufacturing, its potential in a wide range of fields could have remained stagnant. The innovation side-effect of scarcity, then, can be useful. The Department of Defense, and Congress, would be wise to keep this in mind as they negotiate recent acquisition reform proposals.