Army explores 3-D printing's future applications for Soldiers, force

By Argie Sarantinos-Perrin, RDECOM Public AffairsNovember 30, 2016

1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
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3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – This breaching tool, which is used to open doors and crates or to cut wires and other material, evolved from the initial pattern on the left to the final product on the far right. Based on Soldier feedback on the original design, the Ex Lab team adde... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. 1st Class Justin Fulk, ex lab noncommissioned officer in charge, welds parts at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Ex Labs are well stocked with traditional tools, equipment and software to design and fabricate metal and plastic parts. A second lab i... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Lester Hitch, an RDECOM engineering technician, removes adapters for infrared beacons from a 3-D printer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Ex lab personnel developed the design, based on feedback from Soldiers in the field, and then emailed the d... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- A Soldier heads back to camp, grabs a power bar and unloads his gear. The power bar, which was "printed" minutes earlier, contains all the nutrients his body currently needs, according to sensors that are embedded in his uniform.

While this may sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, engineers and scientists at the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) are looking at ways to use additive manufacturing (aka 3-D printing) to make it a reality.

"The vision is to be able to have additive manufacturing as a tool in the toolbox so that Soldiers can manufacture and produce a product as close to the point of need as possible," said Andy Davis, program manager for the Army's Manufacturing Technology program (ManTech).

Part of RDECOM, which is a major subordinate command of the Army Materiel Command, ManTech works closely with Army organizations to identify and fund projects that support the overall Army science and technology strategy.

Using additive manufacturing to supply Soldiers with customized, nutrient-dense food, repair critical parts on demand, or print new skin cells to repair burned skin could not only lighten the logistics burden but also improve the efficiency of the acquisition process.

One type of additive manufacturing -- fused filament fabrication -- produces parts from plastic and other durable materials by adding material, layer-by-layer, using 3-D printers. The material, which resembles heavy fishing line or weed-eater string, is precisely pushed through a print head in the pattern of the item being built.

A key benefit of additive manufacturing is that it uses only the material that is required to make a part, which minimizes waste and saves money. Additive manufacturing can also be used to recycle waste and make new products.

The Army Research Laboratory is working on a process that takes unwanted material -- such as the packaging from Soldiers' Meals Ready-to-Eat and water bottles -- shreds or melts it and then processes it into a string that can then be used to make items like a door handle or a rack.

Recycling waste on the battlefield will not only minimize the cleanup process for Soldiers, but also eliminate the wait time for new parts, which can be days or weeks. The amount of time that it takes to print a part will depend on the material and the part, but overall it will be quicker than waiting for a part to be shipped.

"One of the challenges associated with [additive manufacturing] … is that it's still new," Davis said. "Our understanding of the process down to the level that lets us repeat it and get the same results over and over again is not there yet."


RDECOM partners with the Army's Rapid Equipping Force to manage, staff and support expeditionary labs, or "ex labs," which can be deployed worldwide. Ex labs are designed to supply innovative equipment to forward-deployed Soldiers as quickly as possible. One lab is currently located at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and another at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.

Each ex lab is built into a 20-foot shipping container and two ISU 90 shipping containers, which hold a 3-D printer as well as supporting equipment and the computer-aided design workstation used to create the virtual working models that are then constructed by the 3-D printer. The labs are also stocked with traditional tools, equipment and software to design and fabricate metal and plastic parts.

Once a virtual design is perfected, it will be stored in an enterprise-wide product data management system being developed by RDECOM and Army Materiel Command. Other organizations will have access to the product data management system. The goal is to foster data-sharing and eliminate the need to create designs from scratch.

"The labs have an open-door policy so the Soldier can come in and describe his mission capability shortfalls, and the [ex lab] team immediately starts brainstorming ideas and solutions," said Angel Cruz, RDECOM ex lab project lead.

"If the item doesn't work or fit right the first time, then the [ex lab] team can revise the design on the spot. [Additive manufacturing] allows us to produce different iterations of a solution very quickly in order to get it just right."

The on-site ex lab team includes a Rapid Equipping Force noncommissioned officer in charge, a RDECOM lead engineer, a support engineer, and a machinist. Together, they develop solutions using textiles, electronics, subtractive manufacturing and additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing is used to create parts that are difficult to machine and substitutes for parts that would normally be made using injection molding, an expensive process that requires specialized equipment. Other projects require traditional manufacturing or subtractive manufacturing, which takes away material by cutting, grinding, milling and other methods.

When the ex lab cannot complete the work -- whether it's because of the lack of a subject matter expert, the required supplies, or the time to complete the project -- RDECOM's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center can provide reach-back support across the RDECOM network of engineers, scientists and technicians.

RDECOM plans to develop additive manufacturing in three phases. Phase one will use additive manufacturing to repair and replace existing parts. Phase two will reduce multipart assemblies from a series of parts to one part.

For example, the receiver on a machine gun is composed of titanium parts that are welded together in a multipart assembly; the goal with additive manufacturing would be to reduce the receiver's cost and its number of parts by printing all of the parts as one piece.

Phase three will use additive manufacturing to create new parts that don't already exist.

"RDECOM envisions [additive manufacturing's] evolution across the Army's acquisition and lifecycle management ecosystem," Davis explained.

"It is a crawl-walk-run approach that simultaneously targets low-hanging fruit such as non-structural repairs using additive manufacturing and longer-term material development activities such as designing new components using additive manufacturing."


The Army is currently partnering with industry and academia to share information and pool resources to develop new and innovative applications for additive manufacturing. The Army has partnered with GE, for example, and plans to leverage the experience and knowledge of GE researchers in the development of future Army products.

After years of research, GE has developed a way to produce a metal part for the fuel system on its LEAP engine using additive manufacturing, an innovation that will yield 1 to 2 percent higher fuel economy. GE uses the LEAP engine on one of its commercial airliners, and the company now has a dedicated production facility that produces the new part.

ManTech is also working with GE to mature additive manufacturing production for parts on the T700 engine, which is owned by GE and used on the Army's Black Hawk and Apache aircraft. GE hopes to use additive manufacturing to create parts that will reduce engine's weight and improve its efficiency.

"GE will take what it has developed plus what we have incentivized them to develop for Army engines, and then transition that technology and process into the next generation Army engine, which will be beneficial for many decades," Davis said.


A fundamental challenge the Army still faces in implementing the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing across the force is the newness of the technology.

In traditional manufacturing, most processes (e.g., casting) and materials (e.g., steel) are universally understood, documented and accepted. However, when it comes to additive manufacturing, new processes and materials are being developed rapidly, and information about the performance of the parts that are produced is often insufficient.

For Army-wide adoption of additive manufacturing to occur, there must be a comprehensive understanding of the specific additive manufacturing process used to produce a given part as well as the materials that will be processed.

ManTech is already making investing in several projects that are meant to develop the capability and infrastructure to capture, store and share this information across the Army.

"We hand off the data that we have collected after we mature technologies to a certain level," Davis said. "Then we look at the materials and what we want to do with them and find a program office that has potential applications and timelines that we can support."


Today, additive manufacturing is an exciting area of research and one that holds great promise for dramatic advantages for the Army in the not too distant future.

-- With a sophisticated additive manufacturing printer nearby, Soldiers deployed in remote outposts around the world could "print" virtually anything they need, from food to shelter to weapons.

-- If a Soldier gets burned, a 3-D map of his injury could determine what types of cells should be printed and exactly where the cells would need to go in order to grow new skin.

-- Before moving to a new location, Soldiers could recycle any waste, making cleanup quick and easy.

-- Without having to rely on a cumbersome logistics process, the Army could provide more capabilities at a lower cost. Parts could be printed on the spot, eliminating the shipping process.

While plenty of work still remains, the science of additive manufacturing is gathering speed. In time, additive manufacturing may not just make Soldiers' lives easier, but also radically change how the Army conducts business.


As a result of the rapid growth in the capabilities of additive manufacturing and the Army's increasing interest in using it to improve readiness, the Army established an additive manufacturing community of practice, or CoP, in 2014.

The CoP, with representatives from across the Army enterprise, meets quarterly to share information, coordinate projects and activities and leverage resources, avoid the duplication of efforts, and ultimately improve additive manufacturing and promote its use across the Army.

CoP meetings also serve to identify capability gaps in additive manufacturing and provide recommendations to Army leadership regarding areas where additional research and development are needed.

The Army recently completed an additive manufacturing technology roadmap, which was sponsored and managed by ManTech. The project, which began this year, includes RDECOM, program executive offices, the acquisition community and Soldiers, and provides strategic guidance across the Army materiel and life cycle management communities.

The roadmap covers four key areas critical to using additive manufacturing efficiently and effectively:

-- Materials: what must be done to develop, mature and capture associated data for materials.

-- Design: how to develop and use advancements in the computer-aided design and engineering fields for additive manufacturing products, as well as how to best use the capabilities.

-- Process: what additive manufacturing processes can be used to make AM parts, and what process capabilities are needed.

-- Value Chain: the most efficient and cost-effective way to use AM and the infrastructure required to support it.

The additive manufacturing technology roadmap will be used to inform industry and academia on how the Army plans to use additive manufacturing, as well as related issues that must be addressed.

The Army's roadmap, along with individual roadmaps from the Navy, the Air Force, the Defense Logistics Agency and the Special Operations Command, were integrated into an overarching Defense Department-wide additive manufacturing roadmap rolled out in December 2016.

"I don't know of any other time when organizations across the Army and DOD came together to develop a roadmap that involves everyone from the requirements community to the user community and all the way to the sustainment community," Davis said.


The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.

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