Joint Base Andrews Offers 3D Printing Course, U.S. Air Force Announces

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Joint Base Andrews (JBA), located in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is an operation of the US Air Force (USAF) and serves as a deployment base for air combat units of the Department of Defense (DoD). JBA recently initiated a course on 3D printing. This course is conducted by Spark X Cell, an innovation lab present in JBA offering tech development and support services.

Spark X, initiated in 2019, is an integral part of AFWERX’s ‘Spark cell network’, a global network devoted to innovation. The initial Spark X class was launched on December 1, with plans of conducting a new class each month subject to the participation counts.

The enrollment of USAF Tech. Sgt. Matt Hettwer in the course, who intends to 3D print parts for an electric trombone, establishes the fact that the interest of the military in additive manufacturing (AM) stretches much beyond munitions production. Hettwer states that he wishes to learn the processes of 3D printed electronics in specific, and print a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)-controller.

USAF Staff Sgt. Chad Bohr, who was the instructor of the inaugural class, stated to DVIDS, “My roles primarily include ensuring empowerment of airmen to find solutions to workplace problems.” Further, he is excited about situations where items that are no longer manufactured can be recreated by someone in-house. Jakob Miller, the superintendent of Spark X Cell added that everyone is welcomed to the class, from all active, Guard, and Reserve military members to military civilian personnel. There is no rank or specific requirement, except a commitment to learn a new skill and a drive to innovate. He described the class as a steppingstone for Airmen to bring their technological skills to life by creating a physical product that can make operational impacts. He also emphasized that while not all units have 3D printing abilities yet, all the attendees will have a better understanding of this technology after attending Spark X classes.

The Spark X course is nearly identical to one I mentioned in an article from June 2023, “US Military Innovation Pushed to the Frontlines with Advanced Manufacturing”. That class, which was formed in March 2023, takes place at the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, in the installation’s Airborne Innovation Lab. The Fort Bragg course is also designed to be open to all servicemembers regardless of rank or occupational specialty.

Above the specific end-use parts produced, these courses highlight the most urgent priority driving the US military’s interest in AM: workforce development for the US manufacturing base. The Department of Energy recently released the report, Options for a National Plan for Smart Manufacturing, and the webinar about the release largely revolved around the need for comprehensive workforce training efforts.

The DoD was set to release its National Defense Industrial Strategy this month, although that release has been postponed until January. But a pre-decisional draft of the report also highlights workforce development as one of the biggest challenges the US government faces in its attempt to reshore manufacturing.

CEO of consultancy BMNT, Peter Newell, highlighted this issue in the recent interview I did with him, and the US Navy’s Executive Director of Program Executive Office, Strategic Submarines, Matthew Sermon, has been on a veritable crusade about workforce development all year. Finally, you can read about the topic extensively in “Additive Manufacturing for the Military and Defense”, the AM Research report I co-wrote with Tali Rosman.

It seems almost guaranteed, that not only will a substantial proportion of the next generation of AM workers come from the US military, but even more critically, that the US’s entire next generation model for manufacturing workforce development will be largely predicated on the US military’s buildup of its AM labor pool. If there’s one thing the US military still has the assets and know-how to succeed at as well as anyone else, it’s workforce development: to succeed at that task for the manufacturing sector in the 21st century, the US military needs 3D printers.

Images courtesy of DVIDS

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