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The Army needs to embrace advanced manufacturing at the beginning of new system development to surpass potential foes.

by Dr. Alexis Lasselle Ross

In the future, advanced manufacturing techniques like 3D printing could allow Soldiers to replace parts for systems and equipment almost at the point of need. Back home, the use of artificial intelligence and robotics on the factory floor could streamline and optimize the manufacturing process, saving time and other resources. New, innovative weapon systems, produced using a variety of advanced manufacturing methods and materials, could give Soldiers superior capabilities necessary to defeat rapidly advancing near-peer adversaries.

But to fully realize these benefits, the Army must embrace advanced manufacturing at the beginning of the acquisition process and incorporate it throughout the life cycle of the system.


Advanced manufacturing could revolutionize the logistics footprint on the battlefield through on-demand fabrication of parts close to the point of need. Such a capability would reduce the large number of parts that would have to be stored and transported around the globe. (Photo by RIA–JMTC)

Recently, we’ve heard quite a bit about additive manufacturing—better known as 3D printing—because it’s one of the most understandable and prevalent forms of advanced manufacturing. However, advanced manufacturing is much broader than just 3D printing; it includes both new ways to manufacture existing products and new products resulting from advances in technology. (See Optimized by Design.) It often combines new manufacturing techniques with traditional methods; for example, 3D-printing a part and then using machining and heat treating to get the desired surface finish and material properties, all the while using robotic monitoring for quality control.

Advanced manufacturing has the ability to fundamentally change the way we design, deliver, produce and sustain our capabilities. It can allow us to modernize and innovate our systems like never before. It can decrease design limitations imposed by traditional manufacturing methods and allow us to more easily produce complex parts. Let’s look at an example. Traditionally, an aircraft engine component may be the combination of 200 parts that are welded together into a complex design. But what if, instead of welding together 200 distinct, intricate parts, we could 3D-print the whole component as one piece? We’re going from 200 parts to one, eliminating all fusion points—that are really possible failure points—thereby increasing reliability.

It can also enable the production of specialty or tailored items. Helmets, for example, could be customized to fit individual Soldiers. These capabilities will fundamentally change how we design a component; instead of designing around the confines of traditional manufacturing, engineers can concentrate on the design that achieves the greatest operational performanceIt can also allow us to innovate with unparalleled speed. Using advanced methods, we can quickly produce prototypes, determine if they are viable, and transition them to production faster than ever before.

But to optimize our use of advanced manufacturing, we have to change our thinking about what materials we use as well. That same aircraft engine component we just discussed, which was designed and manufactured using advanced methods, could also be generated using—you guessed it—advanced materials. The use of certain composite materials, such as spun ceramic, allows for components that are lighter than ever before—which is especially critical for things like aircraft components and Soldiers’ equipment.

Beyond the new methods and materials used to produce this component, advanced techniques can also transform the industrial operations at the facility where the component is produced. Combining artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors and a digital network on the factory floor enables the connection between machines, products and people, leading to efficiencies like improved quality control, predictive maintenance or automatic ordering of supplies. It also allows people to monitor the entire process, from individual machine performance to the environmental conditions in the factory—you can digitally follow a part from raw material to final production.


Advanced manufacturing also provides the promise of production scalability. Producing parts or systems using traditional manufacturing methods requires a significant amount of time and money to establish or restart a production line. Using advanced methods, we can quickly establish a line and increase throughput with one company or by contracting with multiple companies. As a result, advanced manufacturing has the potential to lower the barrier of entry for small businesses because there’s no need for large space and machinery, which is usually required for a large production line.

On top of the modernization benefits just outlined, Dr. Bruce D. Jette, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT)), is excited about the possibilities these technologies present for Army readiness. If employed to the maximum extent, advanced manufacturing could revolutionize our battlefield logistics footprint through on-demand fabrication of parts close to the point of need, thus reducing the large number of parts that would have to be stored and transported around the globe. Advanced manufacturing can also be used to address obsolete parts, hard-to-get parts, and diminishing sources of supply. Previously, in urgent situations, innovative solutions were put together with things like duct tape and wire, but now with 3D printers, better solutions can be produced.

Currently, the Army is assessing the value and utility of advanced manufacturing in tactical environments through a limited user experiment that began in April 2018. The experiment consists of adding 3D scanning and 3D polymer printing capabilities to a select set of 10 metal-working and machining shop sets (MWMSS) fielded by the Product Manager for Sets, Kits, Outfits and Tools in the Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support. The MWMSS system already contains a robust point-of-need metal-working and machining capability, and adding advanced and additive manufacturing tools is expected to increase its ability to address urgent user needs at the tactical edge. Feedback from the experiment will be used to inform future requirements for forward capabilities in advanced manufacturing and the value to the warfighter.

From innovative methods and materials, optimized designs and increased performance to improved industrial operations and enhanced battlefield logistics, advanced manufacturing will deliver on two of the secretary of the Army’s top priorities: modernization and readiness.


To implement and fully realize the potential of advanced manufacturing, we are developing an Army advanced manufacturing policy that is scheduled for release in fall 2019. At its core, the policy will direct Army organizations to consider and incorporate advanced manufacturing in all aspects of a systems’ life cycle, from early design and development through sustainment.

Through this policy, we are attempting to move the entire acquisition system toward advanced manufacturing, from the development of requirements, to system design, to production and sustainment. This endeavor will undoubtedly require close coordination and partnership from stakeholders involved across the life cycle of a system. To that end, the policy will apply to the requirements, acquisition and sustainment communities—the U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC), the Office of the ASA(ALT) and the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC). We have been working very closely with AFC and AMC, as well as with other key stakeholders, to ensure that the policy takes a holistic approach to address advanced manufacturing in the entire life cycle of a system, and it will be effectively implemented in the coming years.


Printing parts at the point of need during sustainment will need a good approach to handle intellectual property—like a fee-based agreement, or “pay-to-print” concept, whereby the Army could pay a fee to the company that holds the IP every time a part is printed. (U.S. Army photo)

There are several key elements underpinning the new policy:

Strategic Investment

First, the Army and its industry partners must actively invest in advanced manufacturing. While transitioning to advanced methods and materials may require significant resources, it will play a critical role in our ability to modernize our weapon systems and industrial base. Others, including near-peer adversaries, are already ahead of us in this endeavor. In order to keep pace, we must begin making investments now. To that end, the policy requires that a holistic, threat-based strategy be developed for the investment in and application of advanced methods and materials. Importantly, executing such a strategy will require partnership from the private sector.

Currently, companies across industry are employing advanced manufacturing in different ways. Some have fully embraced advanced manufacturing and are incorporating it into production lines, while others are developing an additive manufacturing capability to sell as a service to other companies and the government. We currently are engaging with the breadth of industry to determine the best way to mature and leverage advanced manufacturing and incorporate it into weapon systems.

Systemic Adoption

Second, we must incorporate advanced manufacturing upfront and throughout a systems’ life cycle. Advanced manufacturing methods and materials will have the largest impact and will provide the greatest return when they are integrated early in system design. As such, the policy directs that advanced manufacturing be incorporated into the upfront design of systems when analysis indicates it offers the best value to the government. To facilitate this, AFC will write capability requirements based on performance and readiness gains made possible by advanced manufacturing methods and materials. For example, harkening back to the aircraft engine component I discussed earlier, the reduced weight of critical aircraft parts could be a performance gain that the requirements and acquisition communities seek. Additionally, AFC is now responsible for the laboratories and technical centers within the Army, so they will be developing new manufacturing techniques and materials for use in weapon systems. ASA(ALT) program offices will be responsible for working with industry to incorporate advanced manufacturing into system design and development. As this is the phase where contracts and agreements are entered into with industry, this is where the rubber meets the road.

And on the sustainment side, AMC will be responsible for incorporating advanced methods and materials into already fielded systems when readiness challenges or cost-benefit analyses call for it. AMC will integrate advanced manufacturing into supply chain processes and provide support to tactical units procuring advanced manufacturing equipment and services. AMC has recently established the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, which will serve as the focal point for the application of advanced manufacturing in sustainment matters. They are making great strides in using advanced manufacturing to address diminishing sources of supply and obsolescent parts for fielded systems.

Thoughtful Use

Finally, we must deliberately and thoughtfully leverage advanced manufacturing. It is worth noting that advanced manufacturing is not appropriate for all systems and all situations, and that certain considerations must be made before its use. The policy takes care to provide flexibility to Army organizations to determine whether to use advanced manufacturing, based on cost-benefit analysis and anticipated value to the government. Incorporating advanced manufacturing into already fielded systems takes time, money and significant engineering analysis, but in some cases, it is warranted to increase readiness. Further, the policy requires that any readiness and performance benefits offered by advanced manufacturing be balanced with warfighter safety, which is always of the utmost importance. For example, only organizations that are authorized and trained to work with explosives may fabricate or modify such items.

Lastly, and importantly, when pursuing advanced manufacturing, we must carefully consider intellectual property matters. Consistent with the Army’s recently released intellectual property policy, program offices must plan early for the intellectual property required to support advanced manufacturing, negotiate with industry for the necessary—not all—intellectual property and for the license rights to use it, and communicate these requirements early and often. With the transformation of engineering and manufacturing, we must also look to new ways to manage intellectual property. For example, if we are considering 3D-printing parts close to the point of need during sustainment, a good approach to handling intellectual property might be a fee-based agreement, or “pay-to-print.” Instead of spending a lot of money for an extensive intellectual property license, the Army could pay a reasonable fee to the company that holds the intellectual property every time a part is printed.

This policy represents the first Armywide step toward truly leveraging the immense potential of advanced manufacturing. We will look to work with partners across the Army, DOD and industry as we implement the policy in the coming months and years. 


Undoubtedly, these technologies will fundamentally change the way the Army designs, develops, produces and sustains systems. The Army has begun and will continue to incorporate these advanced methods and materials into all aspects of the system development life cycle. The technologies involved in advanced manufacturing techniques are complex and rapidly evolving, and commercial industry and our adversaries are already well on their way.

We must start down the same path as quickly as possible to maintain our readiness and overmatch. The future of the Army’s readiness and modernization lies with advanced manufacturing. 

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Dr. ALEXIS LASSELLE ROSS serves as deputy assistant secretary of the Army for strategy and acquisition reform. She is the principal adviser to ASA(ALT), responsible for the design and implementation of acquisition reform and modernization initiatives. She holds a Ph.D. in public policy from George Mason University, an M.S. in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College and a B.A. in international relations from Bucknell University.



This article is published in the Fall 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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