Utilizing 3D Printing for Safety and Efficiency in the Military Leave a comment

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Our May Hackers of the Month are a dedicated group of military members that have leveraged the power of 3D printing to make ordnance disposal training inexpensive and safe for new recruits at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.

Nathanael Banden, an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician, helped answer our questions about what his team does and how 3D printing benefits them. “Our job is the protection of personnel and property from any and all explosive hazards, including rendering safe unexploded ordnance† items (UXO’s) and improvised explosive devices (IED’s). We support numerous local, State, and Federal law enforcement agencies whenever an explosive hazard is present, both in the United States and overseas, and we train continuously to maintain proficiency in our tactics across multiple mission sets.”

So what exactly does an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician do? “The job of an EOD Technician is to remove explosive hazards so that others may safely follow or continue on with their own mission, whether that’s on the battlefield or back in the States. Excellence in executing that mission comes directly from our effectiveness in training.”

Nathanael first heard about 3D printing around 2002-2003 when he was taking a SolidWorks class in high school. “Our teacher managed to get some of our projects printed out from a design lab at MIT to show us that the work we were doing on the computer could have real-world applications.”

“I first got into 3D printing in 2015, when our Unit purchased a 3D printer. We were one of the first Units to get one after our Technology Division completed their work taking it from a notional concept to an approved resource. My leadership put me to the task of getting it set up, and from there I began reproducing several of the inert training ordnance items in our display cases.”

Nate and his team are getting ready to expand their materials usage from almost exclusive use of PLA to PETG and Nylon-12. “Currently, our Unit has a mid-range FDM 3D printer and we will be obtaining a brand new SLS printer to enhance the quality, durability, and throughput of our ordnance and tool models. I just got a Creality CR-10S for personal use as well, and it’s absolutely fantastic for the price I paid! I use Fusion 360 exclusively to design the components, and Cura to slice the .stl files once I create them. Until I got my own printer, we could only use PLA with the FDM 3D printer at our unit. However, I’ve slowly started using PETG at home, which has opened many doors to improving the training aids we make. As soon as our Unit gets the SLS 3D printer, we’ll be able to print in durable Nylon-12, which will be outstanding.”

Luckily for Nate, he doesn’t have to worry about post-processing hassles like sanding and smoothing, “I do my best to design each component to be as hassle-free as possible once it’s printed. Other than removing supports, most of what I print either gets used as a semi-expendable tool, or literally gets blown up during our Unit training exercises, so I don’t typically spend too much time worrying about micro imperfections in the surface quality.”

“We adopted 3D printing in our career field for many reasons. First and foremost, it saves the government a huge amount of money versus purchasing commercially produced “rubber ducky” replicas of ordnance. On average, one of our 3D printed training aids costs 10-50 times less than its commercial counterpart (i.e. about $7.00 for your average 3D printed mortar vs. $200 for the same thing sold elsewhere). The cost savings versus getting an inert version of the REAL item is incalculable because it’s extremely difficult (or sometimes impossible) to get our hands on them, and when we do it can be hundreds or thousands of dollars to ship them, and we have far more critical equipment items and training events to spend our money on throughout the year. Considering the end goal is simply to blow them up, 3D printing has become extremely valuable to us.”

“Second, we use 3D printed ordnance in many of our training scenarios to allow our personnel to stay in the zone and employ real demolition techniques during each iteration. Survival is not optional in our career field, and the less we have to interrupt a scenario simply to save money the more able we are to train how we fight.”

“Lastly, blowing up a thin plastic training item allows us to minimize risk and secondary damage that is associated with the fragmentation produced by real [metal] training aid. As you can imagine, our detonations are heavily regulated and strictly controlled, so 3D printing allows us to practice disposal techniques in real-time where it would otherwise be forbidden due to safety concerns.”

Considering the Los Angeles area experiences approximately 900 possible explosive device calls per year, the work that Nathanael and his team pursue are vital to their own region, and the knowledge they share with other agencies can only benefit the public.

This ability to create practice devices more quickly, and locally, not only allows more freedom for the team to train more technicians, but it also frees up more time to use 3D printing to solve more issues that are faced in the field. “We now have the ability to create mounts for some of the equipment items we might need to attach to our bomb disposal robots for emergency responses. This is much more preferable than duct tape, as it eliminates the possibility of it falling off in wet conditions. In the same manner, we can produce specialized grips for them for placing demolition charges more easily or picking up round/cylindrical ordnance items such as mortars and projectiles (picking up heavy round objects with flat grips has always been highly challenging!)”

Using 3D printing also has financial benefits for the squad as well, “The prints we create save us a lot of money for training aids, allowing us to test notional concepts on new equipment configurations and items, and they provide countless training opportunities for live demolition operations that weren’t feasible or safe in the past.”

Nate’s skill at creating objects is also personal, especially when it comes to helping others, and seeing sustainability as a component of the ever-growing 3D printing industry. “I personally love precision work, and 3D printing has given me a tremendous outlet for my creative side to merge with my precision side, and everyone seems to really like the stuff that’s been made… all the way from bombs to benchies!”

“I personally believe in maintaining the 3D printing realm as a low-cost option for making things that are traditionally very hard to get or are too expensive for most people to afford especially medical prosthetics. I feel that the most important thing that we can do as makers to encourage the exploration and utilization of this amazing technology in the open market is to not become greedy with our profit margins as we offer new designs and products. And a longstanding hope of mine is that the material companies start offering filaments in much larger spools… I can’t express how much I hate throwing out piles of empty plastic spools (um..WASTE!) when I could go to a store and refill a few large ones from a giant dispenser, similar to what we do with propane tanks.”

Like all other Makers, Nate sees lower costs, more material options, and larger build volumes as something the 3D printing industry needs to make available at a reasonable cost to invite more people to adopt it in their daily creations. “I think that a wider range of people would get into it if the machines themselves had offered larger build volumes, produced colors like inkjet printers do, and had the ability to connect to the internet directly with their own screen to view/download/print pre-sliced files without having to manually tweak every model and setting. I don’t mind doing this personally, but the majority of people nowadays only go as far as swiping with a finger or two before they lose interest.”

“Also, 3D scanning technology needs to catch up to the 3D printer world, where shiny/reflective surfaces are easier to deal with from the item being scanned and the software is better able to produce 3D meshes that directly integrate into various CAD programs without being insanely expensive.”

In addition, Nate is currently working on more projects that will only improve the quality and accuracy of the 3D printed models they use for training. “ I’m in the beginning stages of reverse-engineering ordnance fuzes† that are mechanically functional straight out of the printer (to be used with the SLS 3D printer, given its ability to print without supports of any kind). These will mostly be visual aids, but it’s the next step in my personal skill development as well as demonstrating the extensive capabilities of the new machine.”

We look forward to seeing more of Nathanael’s personal projects, and we applaud the work he and his fellow service personnel are providing to keep America and it’s citizens safe through their diligence and commitment to excellence.

†Spelling notes specific to Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal:

  • Ordnance is a military munition item, there is no “i” in it. Ordinance with an “i” is a law or rule
  • Fuze with a “Z” refers again to military ordnance, specifically a mechanical or electrical device used to set off a factory-designed munition item.  Fuse with an “s” refers either to something that burns (like a fireworks fuse) or to two items being combined together.



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