The Jointless Hull machine, said to be the world’s largest additive and subtractive manufacturing platform, has earned the 2024 Technical Achievement Award for 3D Printing Innovation at the 8th Annual Military Additive Manufacturing Summit & Technology Showcase (MIL AM). The awards intend to honour individuals or groups that have shown exceptional achievement in Additive Manufacturing, in support of the Department of Defense (DoD) mission priorities.
The Jointless Hull is located in the Joint Manufacturing & Technology Center (JMTC) at the Rock Island Arsenal (RIA), Illinois, where it was built for the US Army in conjunction with RIA-JMTC, the US 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 the workforce of Department of the Army civilians.
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“To be able to 3D print something that is forging level quality didn’t exist until now,” said Edward Flinn, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence at RIA-JMTC. “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 Jointless Hull combines friction stir deposition AM technology developed by Meld Manufacturing and Ingersoll Machine Tool’s Gantry crane system. The collective efforts result in the largest library of materials that can be directly additively manufactured and machined without a heat treat cycle in between.
“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.”
The process opens new doors for metal manufacturing for the US Army. The Jointless Hull has a build volume of 6.1 x 9.1 x 3.77 m, which enables larger builds down the line, with equipment the size of tank hulls possible in future.
The prototype equipment is part of the US Army’s new fifteen-year, $4.5 billion modernisation plan across its organic industrial base. Army Materiel Command will oversee the transition at RIA-JMTC which will include a new thick aluminium line, upgrades to the factory’s foundry and several other projects scheduled ahead of 2030 and beyond.
Astro America, a key supporter of this initiative, has provided project funding to the industry for the relevant use of the Army MELD machine. The machine has already been used by industry giants like Boeing to showcase parts manufactured using this technology, indicating its widespread impact and adoption. The collaborative efforts span the entire AM ecosystem, from software tools and machines to parts, engineering, analysis, materials evaluation, and workforce development.
“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 Colonel David Guida, commanding officer of RIA-JMTC. “Not only will it allow us to utilise this type of equipment before anyone else in the world, but it will also make sure our organisation continues leading the way for the US Army’s modernisation efforts across the OIB.”
The future capabilities of the Jointless Hull could still lead to upcoming advancements in metal Additive Manufacturing technology, which would align with RIA-JMTC’s vision of producing high-quality, on-time readiness solutions for soldiers whilst modernising. The machine could eventually run around the clock without employee supervision, decreasing the time it takes to manufacture and deliver products, while still 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 US Army is taking huge strides in developing new manufacturing technologies, but it also requires the help of people in the industry.”