Missiles will be quicker to make as 3D printing blasts off

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Missiles will be quicker to make as 3D printing blasts off
Future rockets may be created in the field

yesterday
by: Peggy Hollinger, Industry Editor

It is late on a Friday night at Raytheon’s design site in Tucson, Arizona, and the lights are still on. Engineers at the world’s biggest missile maker are in the lab experimenting with the defence company’s newest manufacturing tool — the 3D printer.

The machines, bought on the commercial market and adapted by Raytheon researchers, are “oversubscribed”, says Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems. Design engineers are so keen to experiment with new ways of making missiles that the printers “are fully occupied on weekends and Friday nights”.

In March, the US Navy tested a Lockheed Martin-manufactured Trident II D5 missile with a 3D printed component. Next year MBDA, the European missile maker, will use a printed part in its Sea Ceptor missile system.

In a few years, 3D printers could be used on the front line to repair or replace missile parts, speeding up availability and eliminating supply risks, according to Mr Lawrence. Researchers are working on ways to print the electrical circuits used in guidance systems and microwave components for radar.

“It will be a while before we print a whole missile, but we definitely see that on the horizon,” he says.

Lockheed Martin says the component which flew on the D5 missile — a cover to protect cable connectors — was designed and manufactured in half the normal time.

At Raytheon, Mr Lawrence agrees: “We can produce fundamentally new capability more quickly, which ultimately means lower cost.”

Jeff Morgans, head of operations at MBDA, estimates that 3D printing could cut the production time of missile components by as much as three quarters. Currently, it takes more than a year from the day the first component is received, he says, or longer including the design process. The company, jointly owned by BAE Systems, Airbus and Leonardo-Finmeccanica, last year doubled its investment in 3D printing.

It will still be decades before forces begin printing their missiles in the field, Mr Morgans says: “Performance of weapons is of paramount importance. We have to be confident that the technology [can be used] without any risk.”

Meanwhile, however, the resurgence in global tensions, from Asia to the Middle East and up to the borders of Europe, is fuelling demand for more missile systems. So too is the arrival of a new generation of fighter jets and warships, such as the F-35 stealth aircraft and Britain’s type 45 destroyer.

Strategic Defence Intelligence, a consultancy, forecasts that the global market for missiles and missile defence systems will increase by nearly halfto $36bn between 2015 and 2025. Some 200,000 missiles will be manufactured in the next five years, according to the consultancy Forecast International.

Along with rising demand, governments want longer range, greater power and precision, and more functions on a missile than ever before — without significantly higher prices. Missiles will have to be more intelligent, possibly even conducting surveillance.

Additive layer manufacturing, as 3D printing is known, could make enhancements more feasible — for example reducing weight to make room for other systems or to deliver greater range.

With 3D printing certain components can be hollow, which is difficult with traditional manufacturing methods that simply cut away material.

The ability to print metals and combine alloys in different ways opens up new design possibilities. “Engineers can come up with brilliant ideas,” says Mr Lawrence, but “the production guys say there’s no way. The introduction of 3D printing is allowing us to do that.”

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