Even before the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center unveils its latest modernization effort, the technology used to 3D print large metal components will be honored at North America’s premier military, aerospace and defense 3D printing event.
“[The technology] opens up the aperture of our capabilities,” said Edward Flinn, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence at RIA-JMTC. “This is a one-of-a-kind device.”
The machine, known as the Jointless Hull, is the world’s largest additive and subtractive manufacturing device. It is located within the RIA-JMTC’s 3 million square foot facility at the Rock Island Arsenal and received the Technical Achievement Award for 3D Printing Innovation at the 8th Annual Military Additive Manufacturing Summit & Technology Showcase 2024.
The device was developed for the U.S. Army in collaboration with RIA-JMTC, the U.S. Army Ground Systems Center, Ingersoll Machine Tool, the Applied Science and Technology Research Organization of America, Siemens and LIFT. The Jointless Hull is operated by highly skilled U.S. Army civilian employees and transforms manufacturing capabilities at RIA-JMTC.
“To be able to 3D print something that is forging level quality didn’t exist until now,” said Flinn. “In the past, except for some unique situations, it’s always been a weldment or assembly using conventional techniques. The joints were always the weakest section of the part. This new system makes it possible for people to not worry about the joints or seams because you can make it in one piece.”
The advances combine Meld Manufacturing’s proprietary friction stir additive manufacturing technology with Ingersoll Machine Tool’s gantry crane system. The result is the largest material library that can be directly 3D printed and machined without intermediate heat treatment.
“The technology is a way to print metal with the same properties that you would get from like a blacksmith with a hammer,” said Chase Cox, vice president of Meld Manufacturing. “So, you get metal hot, put pressure on it and it forms and changes shape. The only difference here is we don’t have a hammer. We have a machine that’s applying the force and we’re rotating that material to get the heat built up. From there, the material can deposit much like a plastic printer.”
This technology opens up new possibilities for metal fabrication for the US Army. The Jointless Hull has a print volume of 20 × 30 × 12 feet, which paves the way for larger metal 3D prints and could eventually enable the production of equipment the size of tank shells with minimal use of traditional manufacturing processes.
The prototype equipment is part of the U.S. Army’s new 15-year, $4.5 billion modernization plan for its organic industrial base. Army Materiel Command will oversee the transition at RIA-JMTC, which will include a new thick aluminum line, upgrades to the factory’s foundry and several other projects before 2030 and beyond.
“RIA-JMTC is extremely proud of this great achievement in manufacturing by our team and partners, and we’re excited to be paving a path forward with this technology,” said Col. David Guida, commanding officer of RIA-JMTC. “Not only will it allow us to utilize this type of equipment before anyone else in the world, but it will also make sure our organization continues leading the way for the U.S. Army’s modernization efforts across the OIB.”
The Jointless Hull’s future capabilities could lead to further advancements in metal 3D printing technology, which aligns with the RIA-JMTC’s vision to produce high-quality, on-time readiness solutions for the warfighter while modernizing for the next fight. The machine could eventually operate 24/7 without employee supervision, reducing the time to manufacture and deliver products while producing stronger and more reliable components.
“[This project is] a representation of the successes we can have when the government and [private] industry work together to create something new and innovative,” said Larry Holmes, director of government relations for ASTRO America. “The U.S. Army is taking huge strides in developing new manufacturing technologies, but it also requires the help of people in the industry.”