By Dan Lafontaine, RDECOM Public AffairsJuly 22, 2014
FORT DETRICK, Md. (July 22, 2014) -- To quickly design, fabricate and deliver prototypes of medical equipment to the field, the U.S. Army is employing futuristic 3-D printing technologies.
Mark Brown, chief of the Medical Prototype Development Laboratory, said 3-D printers have improved each step of his team's work.
"3-D printing speeds up the whole design process. The turnaround time has come down considerably," he said. "A challenging issue we've had is communicating ideas. This definitely fills in that gap by being able to communicate ideas with our coworkers -- biologists and chemists -- so we can be on the same page in terms of product development."
The lab's mission is to build prototypes of field medical equipment that are simple to operate, yet functional. They must also be compact, lightweight, transportable, ruggedized and easy to assemble with no tools.
MPDL is part of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity.
Brown and engineering technicians Jay Bartlett and Mark Easterday begin the prototyping process by discussing ideas with the scientist, engineer or Soldier requesting the equipment. They develop drawings using computer-aided design software, and once an initial concept is agreed upon, the team proceeds to 3-D printing.
"Biologists or chemists can't necessarily put on paper exactly what they want. They know their part of it, and we know this part," he said. "This helps marry those two areas together so we can build what they want.
"In the design process, we'd like to get it as straight a line as possible. It's not always linear. It's a lot of ups and downs. This helps smooth those bumps out."
Having a 3-D printed prototype available for the requestor is beneficial because it allows for a comprehensive review and inspection before moving to the more time-consuming and expensive aspect of manufacturing, he said.
Brown emphasized that 3-D printed parts are used for communicating ideas but not for building the end product. Once a design is finalized, the team can then fabricate parts from traditional materials such as aluminum, stainless steel and plastics using conventional manufacturing techniques.
The MPDL prototypes medical equipment for all the services, and Brown described two recent Air Force Special Operations projects for litters, also known as stretchers.
The team developed a new lightweight litter stand that is collapsible and fits into a backpack. They 3D printed the joints, and most importantly, the three-degrees-of-freedom joint.
These assemblies have individual parts with complex geometry that can be challenging to visualize. As a result, 3D printing was ideal for these types of parts and assembly, Brown said.
Another project was to design a litter handle adapter to mount litters into C-130 aircraft. At the request of the Air Force, the lab created two styles of adapters that provide a more robust mounting arrangement by gripping on the metal adapter instead of the plastic litter handles.
Brown and his team also design prototypes for test kits such as the Environmental Sentinel Biomonitor, which allows Soldiers in the field to monitor water for toxic chemicals.
David Trader, a research biologist with the Army Center for Environmental Health Research, said the current prototype size and weight could be reduced if they changed to smartphone-based software and used an ultraviolet-light emitting diode chassis.
"This is in the conceptual stage, but one way 3-D printing has accelerated this process is by having the prototype in hand and seeing if the reagents and workstations will fit in the chassis," Trader said. "It gives us the ability to visualize how the product could be used and how we can make the design more useful."
The greatest benefit to using 3-D printing for medical equipment is delivering more efficient solutions, Brown said.
"The time and costs associated with our development efforts are greatly reduced," he said. "Products get to the field faster.
"I'm interested in where this technology is headed. I think it has a lot more potential. It has a capability of revolutionizing manufacturing as we know it."
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.