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World-leading 3D printer used by British Army in the field for first time

A cutting-edge 3D printer is being used by the British Army for the first time in the field on the largest NATO deployment in Europe in a generation.

9 Theatre Support Battalion, Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers, are using the technology to make spare parts for vehicles as well as print vital modifications to battle-winning equipment on NATO exercise Steadfast Defender - the largest NATO deployment in Europe in a generation.

The Army’s use of both metal and plastic mobile printers in the field, which can be easily transported between locations, is the first time in the world the technology has been used by any military in direct support of a large-scale NATO Exercise.

With the ability to produce metal parts from the back of a truck in less than an hour, 3D cold metal printing can eliminate the need for parts to be shipped out for repair, saving on transport costs and time. 

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps yesterday said: 

This world-leading technology is another excellent example of how Britain is at the very forefront of innovation in Defence, providing our exemplary Armed Forces with a faster way to respond flexibly in the field. 

The recent increase in Defence spending is crucial to ensuring that our people have the right kit, at the right time. Examples like this demonstrate that we are leading the way in developing new technologies to empower our Armed Forces and give them what they need to defend our nation.

The metal printed technology works by using computer-aided design to digitally produce a component. A fine metal powder, such as copper, aluminium, or steel, is then fired through a nozzle at three times the speed of sound as a mechanical arm shapes the component, building the object one layer at a time. Once constructed, the component is then subjected to post-processing such as heat treating, milling, and finishing.

The printer is currently being used to maintain older vehicles such as the Land Rover by printing harder-to-obtain spare parts. Ambitions for the future include having catalogues of components for new fleets of vehicles such as BOXER and AJAX, so parts can be printed on demand in the field.

Lieutenant Colonel John Anthistle, Commanding Officer of 9 Theatre Support Battalion, Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers yesterday said: 

This equipment gives the Army the flexibility it needs to make spares, components, and modifications to our equipment in the field, at point and time of need. Not only does it save us weeks and sometimes months of having to wait for replacement parts, it also enables us to print components which aren’t available anymore; conduct battle damage repair, and modify equipment to match changing threats.

If you have a broken-down vehicle which needs to be back in the field the next day because it’s a vital piece of equipment, that’s where this technology comes in. It can reduce logistical issues, save money and critically, speed up getting battle-winning equipment back into the fight.

The Australian military were the first to trial the technology on low level exercises, but whereas other countries also utilise 3D printing, it has remained static and employed in laboratory type environments. The British Army, along with industry-leading manufacturers have ‘ruggedised’ the high-tech process so that it can work in the field as a tactically deployed asset. 

The information to make certain metal parts can also be stored in a computer and shared with NATO partners.


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