Procurement: 3D Printers For Ukraine


March 21, 2024: American military aid to Ukraine included a shipping container size 3D-printing UAV factories for Ukraine. A new American tech startup raised $12 million from corporate backers like Lockheed Martin to develop cheap miniature 3D-printing UAV factories for battle zones like the Ukraine. A U.S. firm, Firestorm Labs, was founded after an American 3D printing engineer visited Ukraine in early 2024.

The plan is to produce 3D-printing UAV factories that fit inside a shipping container that can be deployed anywhere in the world. The xCell shipping containers can produce a UAV in less than 24 hours.

The UAV factory shipping containers come in two variants, one with a 6 meter long container and the other with a 12.2 meter container. Firestorm Lab claims these units should be able to produce around 50 UAVs a month. A feature of these 3D-printing factories is that they can be placed in remote areas and blend into the background. These operations are semi-automated manufacturing facilities that can be operated by only a few people. Power can be supplied by generators if local electric power is unavailable. Automated manufacturing makes it possible to quickly produce large numbers of UAVs.

The basic Firestorm Labs 3D-printed UAV is the Tempest, which has a maximum takeoff weight of 25 kg, can carry a payload of 4.5 kg, and has a wingspan of 2.1 meters. It is 1.8 meters long and can be adapted to handle a range of ranges, loitering times, and cruise speeds. This UAV can be broken down into portable cases that one soldier can carry for easy transport. There are swappable propulsion systems for different mission needs. There is also a quick connect/disconnect system that enables rapid reconfiguration.

Firestorm Labs plans to produce over 500 UAVs a month at its United States facility in California for a stockpile that can be used in some future military emergency. In the combat zone the ability to decentralize UAV production could make it difficult for an enemy to destroy a nation’s military UAV capabilities by attempting to destroy all local UAV production. This is what Firestorm Labs proposes for Ukraine.

The pioneer in 3D manufacturing is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation). There was a need for finding or creating technologies and techniques that made it possible to rapidly develop more efficient rockets and SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles).

SpaceX inspired European countries, which had already developed some of the tech that SpaceX used to build their novel rockets and Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs). One of these techs was 3D printing of metal components for rocket engines and other major SLV components needed in small quantities. Traditional manufacturing methods such as forging, machining, and stamping metal are expensive and time-consuming. Change has been coming since the 1980s when the concept of 3D printing tech arrived. Soon it was realized that this tech was evolving to the point where it could handle metal components and complex objects could be built with a 3D printing device. For manufacturers, this was a major revolution for supplying small numbers of complex systems or developing prototypes for testing and further refinement. Spacecraft developers and manufacturers were among the first to make very visible use of this new tech. The first decade of the 21st Century saw the appearance of more effective 3D printers that could handle metal parts of different sizes and complexity that were equal to parts manufactured with traditional methods.

SpaceX, an SLV design and manufacturing operation, was founded in 2002 with the goal of breaking into a market controlled by long-time suppliers. At the time these older firms had formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. This meant that after 2006 all this SLV business went to a monopoly called ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (using Atlas 5 rockets) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they officially monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly.

One of the existing techs that SpaceX applied to their innovative rocket and SLV designs was 3D printing of components, especially for the smaller, liquid fuel rockets used in the final stage of an SLV to put the payload into orbit. These final stage rockets required small thruster engines to maneuver satellites into a specific orbit or maneuver space vehicles when they were docking with space stations, or any chore that required that kind of precision maneuvering in a gravity-free environment.

The other SpaceX innovation was rocket boosters designed to deploy landing struts, and with engines designed to use less power and fuel to enable the booster vehicle to land intact and be used again and again. No government operated program was willing to pay to make this work. Engineers grew more and more confident of making it work but no NASA bureaucrat or SLV manufacturer would take the risk. The founders of SpaceX thrived on risk and made it work, much to the consternation of government space programs everywhere. NASA soon accepted reusable boosters as a low-risk tech and began giving SpaceX launch and design contracts. As each of these deals worked, SpaceX got more contracts and more commercial firms got into the business. Now Ukrainian companies or small partnerships are using 3D printing to aid the war effort. Wars always provide a sense of urgency and willingness to try anything that might work. For Ukraine, 3D printing worked.




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