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British Army deploys 3D printing in the field

The British Army is in the vanguard of the development and implementation of deployable additive manufacturing processes or to put it more simply, 3D printing in the field. 

Through project Brokkr it has delivered a first for UK Defence, the means whereby the metal manufacturing process is taken out of the confines of a laboratory environment and placed on the back of a truck so that it can be deployed anywhere in the field.

To name a project Brokkr may sound a little strange until you read into Norse mythology and learn that Brokkr along with Eitri were legendary dwarf brothers who were famed for their precocious metal working skills which they used to make magical artefacts, beautiful and useful things.  

True, the component parts being made by the British Army’s Project Brokkr may seem rather more mundane than perhaps Odin’s spear or Thor’s hammer; but the application of this cutting-edge technology is set to have far-reaching implications and solutions to many a challenging and costly supply chain or ever changing threat in hostile environments.

So, what is additive manufacturing? In essence it is the creating of a solid object by building it one layer at a time as opposed to the machining process that takes a whole piece of material and reduces it to the shape or object required. By building rather than reducing it is clear there is far less wastage and with it comes the knock-on benefits of less cost and environmental impact.

The British Army really started to embrace additive manufacture back in 2019. It was the Royal Engineers who led the way during their deployment to South Sudan on Op TRENTON. Tasked by the United Nations to refurbish a school, they quickly realised that 3D printing was the most efficient means whereby they could produce plumbing fittings, critical to establishing and maintaining a field hospital.

As one of them remarked “usually these pipe clips you’d buy for 99p at your local DIY superstore, but out here there’s nowhere to go so the only solution was to make them.” Back then they were using crude almost hobbyist type equipment, but very quickly the British Army saw the advantages and has since gone on to develop a range of 3D polymer printing processes.

It has since moved on to develop and implement the printing of metal objects by the process known as 3D cold metal printing, or to give it its more illustrious title, Supersonic Particular Deposition (SPD).

Instead of particles being fused together using extreme heat such as a laser, metal powder, the particle bit, is fired through a nozzle at up to speeds of mach-3, the supersonic part and deposited on a substrate to a computer designed, the deposition.

Through this non heat application, it takes a lot less time to produce larger objects. The Royal Air Force’s heat fusing system allows it to manufacture with far greater precision, although it takes a lot longer and creates smaller products. However, the Army’s SPD method means it can produce far larger objects in a lot less time.

Project Brokkr has seen the development of the additive manufacturing capability with 9 Battalion Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers at the forefront of getting this capability into the field.

Whereas other countries also utilise this means of production, it has remained very static and employed in almost sterile 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 manufacture of a component part starts with the design of the object and moves through to the manufacture before going through the post manufacture processes Lieutenant Colonel John Anthistle Commanding Officer of 9 REME

The Commanding Officer of 9 REME, Lieutenant Colonel John Anthistle was eager to impress that 3D cold metal printing is just part of the whole additive manufacturing process:

“The manufacture of a component part starts with the design of the object and moves through to the manufacture before going through the post manufacture processes such as heat treating, milling and finishing that uses many of the more traditional trades and skills that can be found within the Corps.”

Although additive manufacturing will never replace the logistical supply chain it does provide the means to relieve some pressures. The advantages of the ability to manufacture a component in the field in order to get a vehicle up and running are all too clear to see; efficiency, speed of repair, cost of transport and far less of a carbon footprint by not having to fly out parts.

Currently 9 REME have deployed the mobile 3D cold metal printing capability on Ex Steadfast Defender to Sennelager in Germany in what is being termed the ‘Field Army Additive Manufacturing Concentration’ a UK Defence first; from there it will move to Belgium to take part in the Additive Manufacturing Village, a military showcase run by the European Defence Agency.

REME soldiers will compete with their European colleagues to diagnose the cause of a broken down vehicle, design a replacement part, make it, fit it and drive away. Last time it was held the British Army beat off stiff competition from; France, Germany, Holland and many others to take top honours.

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