FORT BELVOIR, Va. (July 9, 2014) -- Combat frequently presents unexpected challenges, demanding rapid solutions. When faced with unique problems, Soldiers often devise quick fixes out of readily available materials. Whether minor changes to procedures or small modifications to equipment, adaptation routinely occurs at the tactical level on the battlefield.
Additive manufacturing, an evolving technology to create 3-D objects by printing layer-upon-layer of thin material, demonstrates the potential to empower such Soldier innovation and foster frontline agility. One organization, the U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force, known as REF, found a practical way for deployed units to take advantage of additive manufacturing technology in theater.
Expeditionary Problem Solving
As part of its mission to equip, insert and assess emerging technologies and rapidly address capability shortfalls, the REF deploys small teams of Soldiers and civilian engineers to forward locations. These teams interface with deployed units, canvass the battlefield for emerging requirements, facilitate solutions and oversee REF products in theater. Before 2012, teams created solutions for Soldiers in workshops located on large forward operating bases; however, engineers faced a limitation. Each hour spent traveling to units in remote locations represented lost design and engineering time.
The REF inserted two, 20-foot, containerized mobile Expeditionary Labs, or Ex Labs, to deploy to units in isolated locations. Just like REF headquarters, the labs support requirements, solutions and limited development or integration efforts. Each lab includes a Stratasys Fortus 250mc 3-D printer, a computer numerical control milling machine, an array of fabrication tools, electrical diagnostic equipment, software programs and a global communications system to connect forward teams directly with REF leadership and other partners.
"The idea with the labs is that REF brings scientists and engineers to the Soldiers, even those in austere locations," REF Director Steven Sliwa said. "Any Soldier can come to the lab with a problem, and our experts will help them determine a path forward. Perhaps there is piece of kit in the REF inventory that will work; perhaps the lab can design and prototype a solution; or the Soldier may need to submit a 10-liner requirement document so that REF can procure a corresponding off-the-shelf solution."
The 3-D printers and modeling software, both critical Ex Lab components, allow REF engineers to quickly design and validate a solution concept prior to any manufacturing decision.
First, REF engineers work directly with the Soldier to understand the challenge. Then, they virtually design a prototype solution, incorporating the Soldier's unique ideas and concept for operations. The REF engineers 3-D print plastic mock ups and deliver them to the requesting unit for immediate feedback. This allows Ex Lab personnel to ensure proper form, fit and function with the end user up front.
As solutions are being worked daily downrange, the labs use their reach-back support to provide weekly updates to both REF HQ and the Army Test and Evaluation Command for guidance and oversight. Most solutions require three to five iterations before reaching the final prototype. By using forward 3-D printers, the engineering teams are able to print, assess and turn around follow-on plastic prototypes, sometimes in only a few days.
When multiple iterations are required for a customer in a remote location, this prototyping method saves time and money when compared to other options.
Partnerships to Produce Soldier-Inspired Solutions
The REF owns five 3-D printers -- the two in Afghanistan and three at its headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- all of which print solely in plastic polymers, suitable for prototyping. While the labs can create one-off, low-volume orders for simple, plastic components, REF prototypes are typically the first step and often require external validation and manufacturing.
For example, when a unit approached the lab for help with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, REF partnered with two key organizations to solve the challenge. The tire inflation systems on the MRAP deflated when rocks or fixed objects damaged the valve stem.
The solution began as a simple cap made using the 3-D printer and, by the fifth and final version, it morphed into a metal cover that could easily attach to existing bolts on the wheels.
To meet the number of incoming requirements, REF needed more valve stem covers than the lab could quickly produce with a single CNC machine, so they also worked with the forward-deployed Research, Development and Engineering Command Field Assistance in Science and Technology Center to quickly fabricate 25 sets.
In concurrent discussions with Project Manager MRAP, REF learned that a wheel redesign effort was already under way; however, it would take more than a year to outfit all vehicles in theater. PM MRAP recommended REF continue to bridge the immediate need until the long-term solution could be implemented. From beginning to end, the entire design, manufacture and delivery took less than five weeks.
"You can see how the printer allowed us to get to right faster," REF lead scientist Dr. Karen Harrington said. "We were able to print it, try it and then get it right, while bypassing all of the shipping time and costs associated with trying to iterate from across the ocean."
3-D Printing In Support of Force 2025
REF Ex Labs demonstrate the ability to containerize, deploy and operate these systems in a combat environment. While the 3-D printing is a key asset, the REF director emphasized that it is the staff -- two engineers, a senior operations advisor and a noncommissioned officer -- and not the fabrication tools that are the key to its forward success.
"The Army's most valuable assets are Soldiers and in the REF Ex Lab, the people are the greatest advantage," Sliwa said. "When you combine an experienced NCO with talented designers, you can empower a Soldier and take his good idea and turn it into a solution in real time...that's pretty powerful. The 3-D printer is important, but it is just one important tool in the toolbox."
There are known limitations and unanswered questions with regard to future Army widespread use of 3-D printers. Small solutions can take several hours to produce, and some printing materials require stable, sterile environments and specific material handling during transportation and storage.
The established polices for testing, training, contracting and intellectual property impact how this technology can be used in the field today. Extending the use of 3-D printers to unit-level for design and manufacturing will only exaggerate these issues. The Army will have to reexamine existing policies to maximize 3-D printing benefits in the future.
Over the past two years, REF adjusted to these limiting factors while executing Ex Lab initiatives. The organization collaborates with the Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Program; Department of Homeland Security; Department of Energy; and the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center on these issues at the lower levels.
REF is supporting an active ARDEC initiative to establish an Army catalog for 3-D modeling files, and will upload more than 70 original files from the Ex Lab projects in the coming months. They are also partnering with other government agencies, such as DHS, for support. Though these efforts are in the early stages, if realized, the approach could promote interagency information sharing on emerging technologies, prototypes and 3-D printable files.
REF officials believe additive manufacturing is a proven and rapidly improving capability that will become even more valuable as more readily available systems provide greater printing capabilities at lower costs. The next generation of Soldiers will grow up with this technology in their schools and universities and will expect the capabilities that 3-D printing provides.
The Army must be prepared to empower our greatest asset, the Soldier, particularly those deployed, who have the greatest understanding of warfighter challenges and how to solve them, Sliwa said.
"I think the question is not if the Army wants to use this technology, but how does it plan to employ it in the future?" Sliwa said. "REF is not the lead organization for the Army on 3-D printing, but we are here to support our partners. We have valuable lessons learned from nearly two years of printing in theater that can aid the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities discussions that must take place today if we are considering widespread use by Force 2025."
As one of the first organizations to take 3-D printing to combat, the REF believes there will be long-term applications for this capability on the battlefield in the future.
When the Army transitions from Operation Enduring Freedom, REF will continue to support rapid innovation and deployed units globally with the Ex Lab and its 3-D printing capability.
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.
Army Technology Magazine [PDF]