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Defense Additive Manufacturing: DOD Needs to Systematically Track Department-wide 3D Printing Efforts

GAO-16-56 Published: Oct 14, 2015. Publicly Released: Oct 14, 2015.
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What GAO Found

GAO determined that the Department of Defense's (DOD) May 2014 additive manufacturing briefing for the Senate Armed Services Committee addressed the three directed elements—namely, potential benefits and constraints; potential contributions to DOD mission; and transition of the technologies of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (“America Makes,” a public-private partnership established to accelerate additive manufacturing) for DOD use.

DOD has taken steps to implement additive manufacturing to improve performance and combat capability, and to achieve cost savings. GAO obtained information on multiple efforts being conducted across DOD components. DOD uses additive manufacturing for design and prototyping and for some production, such as parts for medical applications; and it is conducting research to determine how to use the technology for new applications. For example, according to a senior Air Force official, the Air Force is researching potential performance improvements that may be achieved by embedding devices such as antennas within helmets through additive manufacturing that could enable improved communications; and the Army used additive manufacturing to prototype aspects of a Joint Service Aircrew Mask to test a design change, and reported thousands of dollars thereby saved in design development (see figure).

Aspects of Army's Joint Service Aircrew Mask Prototyped Using Additive Manufacturing

Aspects of Army's Joint Service Aircrew Mask Prototyped Using Additive Manufacturing

DOD uses various mechanisms to coordinate on additive manufacturing efforts, but it does not systematically track components' efforts department-wide. DOD components share information regarding additive manufacturing via mechanisms such as working groups and conferences that, according to DOD officials, provide opportunities to discuss challenges experienced in implementing additive manufacturing—for example, qualifying materials and certifying parts. However, DOD does not systematically track additive manufacturing efforts, to include (1) all activities performed and resources expended by DOD; and (2) results of these activities, including actual and potential performance and combat capability improvements, cost savings, and lessons learned. DOD has not designated a lead or focal point at a senior level to systematically track and disseminate the results of these efforts, including activities and lessons learned, department-wide. Without designating a lead to track information on additive manufacturing efforts, which is consistent with federal internal control standards, DOD officials may not obtain the information they need to leverage ongoing efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Additive manufacturing—building products layer-by-layer in a process often referred to as three-dimensional (3D) printing—has the potential to improve aspects of DOD's mission and operations. DOD and other organizations, such as America Makes, are determining how to address challenges to adopt this technology throughout the department.

Senate Report 113-44 directed DOD to submit a briefing or report on additive manufacturing to the Senate Armed Services Committee that describes three elements. Senate Report 113-176 included a provision that GAO review DOD's use of additive manufacturing. This report addresses the extent to which (1) DOD's briefing to the Committee addresses the directed elements; (2) DOD has taken steps to implement additive manufacturing to improve performance, improve combat capability, and achieve cost savings; and (3) DOD uses mechanisms to coordinate and systematically track additive manufacturing efforts across the department. GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant DOD documents and interviewed DOD and academia officials.


GAO recommends that DOD designate an Office of the Secretary of Defense lead to be responsible for developing and implementing an approach for systematically tracking department-wide activities and resources, and results of these activities; and for disseminating these results to facilitate adoption of the technology across the department. DOD concurred with the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To help ensure that DOD systematically tracks and disseminates the results of additive manufacturing efforts department-wide, the Secretary of Defense should designate a lead or focal point, at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level, responsible for developing and facilitating the implementation of an approach for systematically tracking and disseminating information. The lead or focal point should, among other things, (1) track department-wide activities and resources, including funding and an inventory of additive manufacturing equipment; and results of these activities, such as additive manufacturing performance and combat capability improvements and cost savings, along with lessons learned; and (2) disseminate the results of these activities, and an inventory of additive manufacturing equipment.
Closed – Implemented
Per our report recommendation for DOD to systematically track and disseminate the results of additive manufacturing (AM) department-wide, on July 6, 2017, the department issued a formal memo establishing a Joint Additive Manufacturing Steering Group and the Joint Additive Manufacturing Working Group that develop a DOD AM vision; disseminate information on DOD AM efforts throughout the services and components; provide recommendations for a joint AM investment strategy; identify and share AM best practices; encourage joint approaches to accelerate AM qualification and certification; and provide a report to Congress in accordance with the Senate Report on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (S.R. 114-255) regarding current and future plans for joint-development projects by end of June 2017.

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