If you had tens of millions of dollars to spend on improving U.S. military capability, what would you invest in? It turns out that one of the projects that interests the Department of Defense (DoD) is developing better composite materials. They want better composites bad enough to invest $14.5 million in them.
Before you assume that’s too much money, consider the number things we now take for granted that originated from government research. What we now know as the internet is a notable example. The internet began as a project to improve military networking. It only exists today because the military opened it to the private sector.
Everything from duct tape to memory foam has its origins in government research. Knowing that, consider what could come of the DoD spending so much money on better composites. Who knows what materials we will end up with in the future?
Cold Spray Manufacturing
Composites Manufacturing reports that the DoD recently awarded a grant to Rowan University for research projects to develop new composite materials based on cold spray manufacturing. If the research goes as planned, it should produce both new composite materials and a way to process them.
The eventual goal is to come up with new composite plastics that will make military vehicles lighter and stronger. They also hope to use the materials to create replacement parts on demand and manufacture new equipment that will keep soldiers safer.
The most important part of the equation here is cold spraying. As a manufacturing technique, cold spraying is pretty simple in principle. Solid materials are combined with supersonic gases and sprayed onto a substrate to create form. Spray velocity causes plastic deformation that, in turn, causes the material to adhere to the substrate surface.
Just like painting a car, cold spray manufacturing allows for multiple layers of plastic material to be laid down in quick succession. Cold spraying reduces voids, creates a more uniform thickness, and is highly customizable just by using different combinations of solids and gases.
Other Manufacturing Processes
Cold spraying is not the only process military contractors use to create composite products. In fact, it doesn’t even make up the majority of composite manufacturing. That honor goes to manual layups.
A manual layup process involves layering multiple pieces of carbon fiber fabric in a tool (mold) and then impregnating the fabric with epoxy resin prior to curing. Manual layups have been used for decades, according to Salt Lake City-based Rock West Composites. The biggest problem with this process is that it is labor-intensive and time-consuming.
Additive manufacturing is another process military contractors rely on. For all intents and purposes, additive manufacturing is essentially 3D printing. New technologies are making 3D printers more capable all the time, leading to faster production and more complex part designs.
No one really knows where all of this will lead the DoD in its quest for better composites. But common sense dictates they will likely combine multiple processes across every level of composite manufacturing. For starters, it seems reasonable that DoD contractors will continue using manual layups for certain kinds of parts.
In the field, 3D printing seems to be the way to go. It allows for producing parts on demand, which is important on an active battlefield. The question is whether or not cold spray manufacturing would offer similar benefits in the field.
At any rate, the DoD understands the importance of developing new composite materials to keep our military at the forefront. They are willing to spend dearly on developing those materials.