3-D printing in the field gives Soldiers more flexibility
Army PACBOT lightened by 6 pounds by using 3-D printed parts (shown in color). 3-D printing capability in the field means that Soldiers won't always have to wait for spare parts to arrive from original manufacturers, increasing Soldiers' readiness an... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- Engineers here are developing 3-D expeditionary kits that could be used when needed to make specialty tools, spare parts, and other components to fill the time gaps between when parts break and when the replacement arrives from the original equipment manufacturers.

Rapid Fabrication, also known as R-FAB, with additive manufacturing on the battlefield is a fieldable system for rapid construction of critical repair parts, specialty tools, spares, and custom packaging for brigade support battalions, sustainment supply activities, and other special mission activities.

Use of the kit also allows Soldiers to innovate solutions that can be validated by engineers to solve operational and mission-specific needs.

"The number one priority of our Army is readiness," said Capt. Jeremy Pinson, who is the Additive Manufacturing Lead for U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command. "R-FAB allows Soldiers and leaders to increase their readiness by making either authorized replacement parts or user-designed "readiness replacement parts."

"What does that mean?" Pinson continued. "It means Soldiers can design a solution to a problem that leaders may not even know about. While waiting for the part to be qualified, a leader of the appropriate level can accept the risk of utilizing the solution. For example a robot tread could be printed, [and while] that tread may not be as good as an OEM part but the part will get the Soldier through their next mission."

Commercial off-the-shelf and ruggedized equipment and tools can be used to make custom parts and packaging for shipment, supply support items, and replacement/repair parts and components.

But the new R-FAB kits will have the required equipment, software, and tooling as well as database of approved design files accessible by Soldiers for manufacturing in the field.

"R-FAB allows rapid repair or Soldier innovation at the point of need," said Pinson.

Who benefits from these kits? "The warfighter is the end goal user," said James Zunino, a materials engineer at the Armament Engineering Analysis & Manufacturing Directorate at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center.

"The main driver is by the warfighter for the warfighter. During the recent exercises we focused on Brigade Support Battalions, specifically allied trades and warrant officers," said Zunino.

"We currently focus on the 914 and 91E Military Occupational Specialties due to their experience with subtractive manufacturing and familiarity with computer aided design," added Pinson.

"Additive Manufacturing or AM (including 3D Printing) is a process of making device or objects with an additive process where successive layers of material are "added" or laid down in different shapes, rather than conventional subtractive processes that include removal of material such as machining, cutting, drilling, etching, carving, etc." Zunino explained.

"R-FAB's participation in Army Warfighting Assessment 17.1 showed us that Soldiers from [an] alternate Military Occupational Specialty can easily learn to print and design. The lessons we learn from R-FAB will help us utilize the many benefits of additive Manufacturing at the same time our workforce is ready to maximize those efforts," said Pinson.

"Sometimes for mission success we only need to get our equipment two miles down the road or innovate faster than our adversary," Pinson continued. 'We don't always need perfect; good enough sometimes is good enough."

Soldiers on the mission will find a solution faster than any CONUS-based force because they need to win and survive," he said. "The more we provide them with tools, and digital coordination for reach-back to our great Army scientists, the more they will find solutions to problems we don't even know exist, increasing our readiness and mission success."

R-FAB would be deployed with Soldiers as close to point of need as possible and to any maintenance group or unit that is deployed with limited supply support.

"There are other potential solutions for expeditionary AM but the R-FAB System is focusing on meeting several Army warfighter challenges and selected capability need area," said Zunino.

The Army is fielding subtractive manufacturing this year with the Metal Working Machine Shop Set, known as MWMSS.

"The MWMSS uses subtractive manufacturing to manufacture at the point of need," said Pinson.

"This is a great solution and will be a great asset for our Soldiers. However the Army doesn't find one solution and stop looking for better," he said. "Additive Manufacturing provides several distinct benefits to subtractive manufacturing but at the same time the technology has not arrived at the point where we can conduct a one for one swap.

"The Army must stay on the cutting edge of technology to maintain our overmatch on the battlefield. This is especially true of technologies such as R-FAB which have the potential of not only increasing our readiness but saving us money which can be reinvested into other systems," Pinson added.

"This systems will save time and money," said Zunino. "The main objective is to meet Army readiness goals a directive of the Secretary of the Army. Filling the gap until spare parts are delivered will greatly increase the operational tempo of the warfighter."


The U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, whose mission is 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.

Related Links:

Research, Development and Engineering Command website

Army.mil: Science and Technology News

Picatinny Arsenal homepage

Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) website

Related Links:

Research, Development and Engineering Command website

Army.mil: Science and Technology News

Picatinny Arsenal homepage

Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) website