Is it possible to almost entirely 3D print a functioning firearm? It may be. But only if your name is Beretta and you have been pioneering manufacturing processes in the firearms industry for five centuries. Beretta, the oldest industrial dynasty in the world, recorded its first transaction on October 3, 1526, when master gun-barrel maker Bartolomeo Beretta sold 185 arquebus barrels to the Republic of Venice for 296 ducats.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Beretta Holding has a global presence, spanning 14 different brands and generating yearly revenues of nearly $1 billion, with the US as its largest market. The Beretta factory near Brescia, Italy, produces some of the most precise and trusted firearms for law enforcement, military, and security around the world. Precision is key: Beretta has been forging hunters for 500 years and is a leader in shooting sports. At the last two editions of the Olympic Games, Beretta’s athletes took 10 out of 15 medals in 2016 (as many as the 20th placed nation) and 9 out of 10 in 2020.
Over the past century, starting with Pietro Beretta in 1903, Beretta’s Presidents have invested in modernizing, digitizing and automating their production processes. The latest initiative, under the current President and CEO of Beretta and VP of Beretta Holdings, Franco Gussalli Beretta, is the additive manufacturing laboratory, featuring both metal and polymer additive manufacturing capabilities. We had the unique opportunity to visit this laboratory and learn from Marco Bassoli, Firearm Research & Product Development Director, and Gianmarco Chiari, Process Engineer, how 3D printing is used to make models and functional prototypes, with the sight set on serial production of final parts.
A truly digital workflow
Attached to the beautiful, centuries-old Villa Beretta, the factory is a state-of-the-art, highly automated facility with capacity of up to 1,000 handguns and several hundred shotguns per day. Because of the scale, the tight tolerances and the high-quality materials involved, manufacturing is carried out via formative and advanced subtractive processes. The Machining Department houses lines of dozens of 5-axis CNC systems that churn out parts day and night, with minimal human operators.
Mr. Bassoli’s team works on digitalizing these workflows, from FEM analysis of models all the way to ERP and PLM implementation. “We apply these tools to all products and workflows, from the very beginning of a new product’s development all the way to production and beyond,” Mr. Bassoli explains, “we are working towards implementing a full digital twin of the value chain, so that we can simulate every aspect of the workflow.”
Today all these advanced digital capabilities are implemented in digital subtractive workflows – to a degree that only few companies around the world have achieved – however additive manufacturing already plays a part by enabling much faster and more cost-effective development cycles. With such advanced levels of digitalization, it should come as no surprise that Beretta began implementing AM processes for prototyping very early, both through external suppliers and an internal machine.
Functional gun prototypes
“We got our first SLA 3D printer from 3D Systems in 2004,” Bassoli says, “and we used it to start making non-functional models. It was helpful but we what we really needed was the ability to make prototypes that we could test so we used 3D printing to produce silicone molds, to then make the functional prototypes in polyurethane.”
The mold to manufacture a Beretta final product can cost several tens of thousands of dollars. Producing such a mold early in the development cycle to test a part is simply not feasible but the company needs functional test parts. “The silicone molds offered us an initial solution but the introduction of SLS technology in 2014 changed everything,” Bassoli says. “Using a glass-fiber-reinforced nylon powder we are now able to produce hundreds of polymer components for prototypes that we can test for form, function and stress resistance. It was a game changer.” It should be highlighted that parts made through this technology are not parts that can withstand the direct force of the shot, such as the gun barrel.
As Bassoli explained, reinforced nylon is an ideal material for many gun and rifle final parts, even for parts produced by traditional means (i.e. injection molding). It is sufficiently strong and at the same time sufficiently elastic to withstand the stresses generated by the forces due to a projectile’s explosion. It’s even better than other high-performance plastics such as PEEK, which are commonly used for metal replacement but are too stiff to be used in firearms.
In the additive lair
The additive manufacturing laboratory at Beretta today houses the large SLS system with a post-processing station for functional models and a material jetting system for rapid production of visual models. It also has a large, single laser metal PBF 3D printer. It is located inside the larger section dedicated to R&D and small series production. These are getting increasingly larger and can reach a few thousand pieces. In some cases, they are used for bridge manufacturing and are mostly produced using subtractive processes.
But AM is also increasingly playing a role in providing functional parts as delivery times get shorter and shorter. “We usually get requests to deliver parts or products yesterday,” Bassoli jokes. “With AM we can now at least deliver them on the same day.” To further prove this point, Gianmarco Chiari showed us a largely 3D printed automatic submachine gun that was delivered to the Italian Carabinieri, in over 30 units that were in use for testing purposes, while awaiting delivery of the final stock.
The importance of rapid functional prototyping at a company like Beretta should not be underestimated as firearms production revolves around dozens of different product models that are optimized for ergonomics, portability, weight, and comfort and can be highly customized. These include sporting and hunting rifles and shotguns all the way to fully automatic, assault weapons for the armed forces and police of many countries around the world. Beretta offers these products along with accessories and clothing. Rifle customization and luxury collector items are also significant businesses where AM could play a part. Serial production of gun and rifle parts using AM is still far away for both metal and polymers, although some applications could start being envisioned.
Setting sights on production
“Costs are just prohibitive at this time to think that we could use AM for larger productions,” says Bassoli, “Productivity is too low,” he adds, referring to metal parts and components. “In addition, every material needs to be validated for every single new part and the process can take a long time.” To date Beretta has validated different kinds of metals alloys for use with AM. More materials are on the way, but they cannot compare to some of the alloys used for the gun barrels: their quality is a distinguishing element of all Beretta products. The process and materials have been fine-tuned for centuries.
Many of the smaller metal components require extremely tight tolerances which means that not only they have to withstand forces and ensure the utmost levels of reliability and repeatability, but also, they must be finished subtractively when they come out of the 3D printer. “Designing the parts for additive manufacturing can reduce the amount of finishing required but not eliminate it completely and that contributes to drive up costs,” Bassoli explains.
To implement metal AM into production – which is still the final objective – it became necessary for Bassoli and his team to implement some serious lateral thinking. “When we decided to bring the metal 3D printer in-house in 2018, we leveraged a regional fund and worked to re-imagine a rifle through the new geometric possibilities offered by additive manufacturing, reviewing completely the classical design mindset,” Bassoli says. The first result was a highly customized rifle with a generatively designed stock 3D and a customized handle, all 3D printed in metal.
“It was an exercise to understand the capabilities of this technology and it has helped our team understand many aspects of using metal AM, Bassoli says. “We understood is that costs are currently still too high for serial production. While it could make sense to use AM to make certain collector and unique items, it remains to be seen how many requests we would receive for the items featuring the unique geometries that AM can create.”
Bassoli and his team are at the same time very optimistic about future the possibilities of AM and they are convinced that adoption will continue to grow. “We realize that it is necessary to begin working with, and understanding, the technology now. If you wait until it’s widely adopted it will be too late,” he recognizes: “it’s a matter of identifying the applications where it makes sense to use it.”
A silent transition
This brings us to one of the highlights of our visit: Beretta already has identified the first key application for direct metal additive production: silencers. This is where AM’s capability to build highly complex geometries as single parts can provide significant added value. Silencers are used to reduce the noise and blast of the firearm. They are usually made of multiple “ring-like” parts that are screwed and then bonded or welded together. Each one of these parts provides a layer that reduces and contains the noise and gases released by firing.
“With additive manufacturing, we can make these as single parts, with a complex internal structure that does not require supports if it’s properly designed,” Bassoli explains. This makes them extremely effective in dispersing the gases that accumulate and can be detrimental to both the operator and the weapon itself. But even more importantly, from a manufacturing point of view, is that this is an additive manufacturing application that has already been validated both technically and commercially. “We are able to assess the exact productivity of our metal 3D printer for this product – Bassoli says – and that means we can define both the price and our ability to deliver these to our customers.” The product is already available on the market (where allowed by local laws) and can be ordered. Beretta is already envisioning a distributed manufacturing network where these are produced on location by Beretta partners.
That’s the beauty of digital, additive manufacturing. Once an application and its workflow has been shown to be profitable and sustainable, making more of them comes down to adding more 3D printers. Seeing by the number of CNC machines already working full time at Beretta, that should not be difficult.