Design Engineering

U.S. Army 3D printing ultra-strong steel parts from powder

By DE Staff   

Additive Manufacturing Defense

Researchers foresee additive manufacturing as transformative for battlefield logistics.

The U.S. Army researchers are looking into metal additive manufacturing to create steel alloy as a way to transform combat logistics. At the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, materials manufacturing scientists say this technology may change everything, although readily printed reliable 3D parts are still in the future.

“You can really reduce your logistics footprint,” said Dr. Brandon McWilliams, a team lead in the lab’s manufacturing science and technology branch. “Instead of worrying about carrying a whole truckload, or convoys loads of spares, as long as you have raw materials and a printer, you can potentially make anything you need.”

Using powder bed fusion, the Army researchers are building parts from an alloy, called AF96, in powder form. The Air Force initially developed AF96 as an economical yet high-strength and hardness alloy for bunker-busting bomb applications. The resulting steel alloy parts are approximately 50 percent stronger than those commercially available, McWilliams said, but they have yet to be battlefield tested.

“We’ve printed some empeller fans for the M1 Abrams [Main Battle Tank] turbine engine and we can deliver that part—they can use it, and it works,” McWilliams said. “But it’s not a qualified part. In terms of a battlefield scenario, that may be good enough to be able to get your tank running again for hours or days if that’s important to the mission, but on the other hand, we still need to be able to answer, does this perform as good as the OEM part? Does this perform better?”


Currently, McWilliams said the laboratory is working with industry and academic researchers to model new alloy designs and perform computational thermodynamics.


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