AFRL Additive Manufacturing Program advances functional prototyping

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Florida — Additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, has been taking the world by storm with its potential to revolutionize the way we produce everything from unique mechanical components and electronics to human organs. This paradigm shift in manufacturing has also caught the imagination of the leaders of the U.S. Air Force. At the 2015 Air and Space Conference, General Ellen Pawlikowski, Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, compared the importance of additive manufacturing to other game changing technologies like hypersonics, directed energy, and autonomy, stating, “if you were to ask me what’s the fourth game changer, in my mind it’s additive manufacturing because it can truly change the calculus of how we sustain our systems.”

Additive manufacturing as a game changer is becoming a reality at the Air Force Research Laboratory. AFRL is at the cutting edge of rapidly prototyping a variety of components including flexible electronics, sensors, fuzes, energetic materials (often the explosive portion of the weapon), and warheads achieving the long-term goal of rapidly prototyping fully functional advanced capabilities for the warfighter. The cross-directorate effort is called the Flexible Electronics and General Ordnance Manufacturing (FLEGOMAN) program and leverages the expertise of Air Force researchers across the country and is led by the AFRL Munitions Directorate.

Dr. Amanda Schrand, principle investigator for FLEGOMAN at the AFRL Munitions Directorate states, “We are maturing additive manufacturing to address technical challenges in Fuze Technology and Ordnance Sciences to increase the lethality of small weapons, and enable modular and flexible weapons. We also hope to decrease the time it takes to refresh critical components as well as decrease the cost to produce a weapon and its components. We are currently focusing on additively manufacturing survivable fuze electronics such as detonators, switches, capacitors and traces, leveraging the expertise of our colleagues at the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Sensors Directorate, Air Force Institute of Technology and Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. Additionally, we are developing tailorable, lightweight, cellular warhead cases and structural reactive materials that offer strength and energy on demand. Many of these designs cannot be achieved through traditional manufacturing methods. Finally, we are exploring ways to improve energetic materials by printing them rather than pouring them.”

Dr. Michael Lindsay, core technical competency lead for ordnance sciences in AFRL/RW, sees additively manufactured energetics as a capability that will enhance the performance and function of weapons. His research is exploring how additive manufacturing can enable variations in densities within the energetic materials in a weapon, creating unique explosive effects and providing a new design space for novel ordnance concepts.

The promise of additive manufacturing is already changing the game today. The FLEGOMAN team has demonstrated printing of flexible component boards with additively manufactured capacitors that are able to survive high levels of acceleration in drop tests with more advances planned in the future. The teams’ efforts are certain to make weapon components more survivable, affordable and unique, as well as faster to manufacture. In fact, some of principles and methods developed in AFRL’s rapid prototyping techniques are already making a difference in ongoing munitions research programs.