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Army Technology Magazine
July/August 2014 Focus: 3-D Printing

NATICK, Mass. (July 11, 2014) -- Army engineers are working to create 3-D solid models and prototypes from computer-aided design data. These prototypes enable researchers to evaluate and detect component and system design problems before fabrication.

The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Computer-aided Design and Rapid Prototyping Laboratory uses an additive manufacturing process of selective laser sintering, known as SLS. The printer relies on lasers to sinter, or melt, powdered, nylon materials layer upon layer into a prototype.

Over the years, researchers have created numerous prototypes and product components. NSRDEC engineers created prototypes for the pack frame of the Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment system and fabric attachments for the MOLLE pack itself. Engineers also created a battery case, as well as the individual electronic components contained in the case, which were later tested and used in the field.

"We've built components that could interface with unique equipment like chemical gear," NSRDEC engineer Gary Proulx said.

Engineers also use the lab to develop testing tools and meters, some of which aid in testing of equipment in Natick's climatic chambers.

Rapid prototyping helps engineers find design issues early on and strive for continuous prototype improvement, Proulx said.

"With some items, it is how it feels," NSRDEC engineer Karen Buehler said. In the case of a snap-type closure buckle on your backpack...it's about how it snaps. Just a little bit off on a dimension can really change how it feels or how it works. If you have four or five ideas, you can pop them in there and make a couple of each and go try it and touch it and test it. Then you can make important changes that make sense."

"It's much easier to do things with this process than to mold it and build it," Proulx said. "You can build something one day and put it in someone's hand the next and then make your changes and then reiterate. It's a short cycle to do so, and it's relatively inexpensive."

The results are high-quality rapid prototypes.

"It provides a better way to interface with industry," NSRDEC engineer Matthew Hurley said. "We can give them parts that are 80 to 90 percent ready to be produced."

The engineers also create prototypes and scale models for illustrative purposes.

"We do a lot of prototyping of emerging concepts for demonstrations," Hurley said. "We're bridging the gap between concept and field-ready equipment."

"So many people are visual in terms of understanding information," Buehler said. "You touch it. You see it. It's not necessarily words that get through. 'Oh, I get it now. I've seen that. It looks like this. I can envision what the future looks like. Or at least now I have an idea of what it can do.'"

In the near future, engineers hope to add a new 3-D printer with will add multimaterial stereolithography capabilities. The process uses ultraviolet cured liquid resin to form layers that comprise the prototypes.

"With the new machine, we can mix hard and soft materials," Buehler said. "We will be able to make a button. Or I can make something where I can press something and make it turn on and off."

"We will be able to produce more types of models to find errors in different applications because we have that wide range of mechanical properties," Hurley said.

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This article appears in the July/August issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on 3-D printing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.

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