ExOne to develop portable 3D printing factory

U.S. Department of Defense contract funds binder jet operation in a shipping container.


The ExOne Co., maker of industrial sand and metal 3D printers using binder jetting technology, has been awarded a U.S. Department of Defense contract to develop a fully operational, self-contained 3D printing factory housed in a shipping container.

Now under development, the rugged 3D printing factory pod would be set up in a standard shipping container, up to 40ft long, to be deployed directly in the field, via land, sea, or air, to manufacture parts to support military, disaster relief, or other remote operations. ExOne’s 3D printers can produce parts in more than 20 metal, ceramic, or composite materials.

Awarded by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in August, the $1.6 million contract will focus specifically on improving the ruggedness of ExOne’s commercially available binder jet 3D printers for a wide range of operating conditions while maintaining exacting final part quality. Additionally, the project will aim to simplify use of the technology in the field with software and training, so the pod can be used with minimal technical knowledge.

“Binder jet 3D printing is a critical manufacturing technology for military use because of its speed, flexibility of materials, and ease of use,” said John Hartner, ExOne’s CEO. “We’re excited to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Defense and other partners to make our 3D printers more rugged for the military, which will also benefit our other manufacturing customers. Most importantly, we know that years from now, our technology will play an important role in filling critical needs quickly.”

As part of the project, ExOne is developing a special military-edition 3D printer that can binder jet 3D print more than 20 metal, ceramic, and other powder materials into direct final products or tooling. The upgraded commercial 3D printer will have a unique body style and other features that will make it a rugged, military-grade product.

By enabling a military team on-site to 3D print parts as needed, the downtime can be reduced from weeks or months to only a few days or less, while also reducing costs.

Ideally, military personnel would 3D print a digital file of a broken or damaged part and have a finished product in less than 48 hours without conventional tooling in the self-contained pod. This approach could save weeks to create parts, while also reducing waste and the need to carry expensive inventory in crisis zones.

A digital library of parts for 3D printing can be stored electronically, as opposed to racks of spare parts in a storage depot. When a digital file is not available for older parts, the item can be 3D scanned and printed in the field. Parts to solve problems in the field could also be designed digitally and 3D printed as needed.

ExOne’s binder jet 3D printing transforms metal, sand, or ceramic powdered materials into highly dense and functional precision parts at high speeds. An industrial printhead selectively deposits a binder into a bed of powder particles creating a solid part one thin layer at a time. The technology is viewed as a desirable and sustainable production method because of its high speed, low waste and cost, and material flexibility.

To speed development of the rugged 3D printing pod, ExOne will collaborate with several partners with unique engineering expertise on the project:

Dynovas Inc., based in Dover, Delaware, which specializes in materials engineering, composites manufacturing, and weapons systems

Applied Composites – San Diego, California, a provider of complex composite components, assemblies, engineering, and tooling to the aerospace, defense, and space systems markets. AC-SD’s Reinforced Additively Manufactured Compression Assisted Molding (RAMCAM) system is an enabler to the current pod project.


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