DARPA’s advanced 3D printing research

I spoke to the manager of DARPA’s 3D printing program about how the Pentagon’s technology incubator is using additive manufacturing.

DARPAs Open Manufacturing program began in 2012. Maher explains, “The inspiration around the program was that it was getting really hard to get new manufacturing technology into use.” In particular while metal additive manufacturing was showing signs of promise the technology was not making its way into production in any concerted manner. “The reason was that they didn’t trust the manufacturing process,” says Maher. Potential users were unsure about how 3D printing, “processes scale-up and how the manufacturing parameters that we work with effect the [material] properties.” And so the Open Manufacturing program was created.

3D Printing at the frontier of technology

Of course this was not DARPAs first venture with 3D printing. While the world was occupied with Pokémon for the first time, Gameboy rather than iPhone, and Keanu Reeves was using his knowledge of Kung Fu to defeat Agent Smith, DARPA were already working with the technology. In the, “Early 2000’s maybe late 90s DARPA had done some work looking at 3D additive for ceramics, but as tools for casting,” says Maher. “So if you wanted to put flow paths in turbine blades, that was something we did a long time ago.” Its probably worth bearing this in mind the next time you read about the latest 3D printing “world first.”

In the present day, rapid qualification is, “where we think we’re going to have a really big impact with the program,” says Maher. The qualification and validation of materials and processes is an important dimension for integrating 3D printing into production. Removing this barrier is a recurrence theme in conversations with people working at the frontiers of additive manufacturing.

DARPA’s Open Manufacturing program has three strands. The first is not directly related to 3D printing but looks at bonded composites, “We’ve come up with a methodology that determines what a good quality output of bond is, a composite bond, and developed a bunch of processes that go along with that to improve the reliability of that process including things like plasma surface treatment, new inspection techniques that can verify the cleanliness of a surface before you bond.” Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrup Grumman make use of these techniques for bonded aircraft structures.

The full interview continues here.