PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- As a way to enhance mission readiness, a broad-based U.S. Army team joined forces to demonstrate the ability to manufacture essential parts using 3-D printing at the "point of need," applying a system called Rapid Fabrication via Additive Manufacturing on the Battlefield or R-FAB.
R-FAB is an expeditionary system consisting of 3-D printers inside a two side expandable shelter. The shelter fulfills two roles: protecting the equipment during transportation and expanding to provide a climate controlled work area.
The R-FAB system demonstrated manufacturing objectives during Hanuman Guardian (Thailand) and Orient Shield (Japan), part of the Pacific Pathways exercises designed to support the U.S. Pacific Command's strategic priorities.
The 3-D scanners can be used for reverse engineering: making a copy of an existing part. This was the most-used capability during Pacific Pathways, as the team scanned and reproduced generator wrenches, HMMWV window locks and knobs and other parts.
The R-FAB team used the onboard database of existing part files and 3-D Computer-Aided Design software to design new parts "on the fly."
Some of the biggest "on the fly" successes from the exercise were the camera lens covers for the Common Remote Operated Weapons System (CROWS) and Thermal Imaging Module (TIM) and the Visual Imaging Module (VIM) lens covers for the Stryker.
These camera lens covers are critical to the readiness of the Stryker and would cause the vehicle to be "deadlined" for about three to four weeks while the parts are shipped through the supply chain. This type of part is frequently needed, difficult to obtain, and causes a weapon system to be nonoperational.
The team designed, printed and confirmed proper fit of the temporary covers in 4 hours. This rapid fabrication capability was especially important since the cameras needed to be protected from Typhoon Talim, which made landfall during Orient Shield.
Soldier readiness issues can be solved with expeditionary additive manufacturing as well. A Soldier broke the standard collapsible butt stock for their M4 rifle. This left the Soldier with only the buffer tube to support their shoulder. An undamaged butt stock was scanned and printed in a few hours.
"The team is now able to print up to five jobs simultaneously, and they continue to receive more requests that challenge and improve their abilities to operate the system," said Maj. Phillip Castillo, Brigade Logistics Support Team (BLST) Chief, 402nd Army Field Support Brigade (AFSB).
Participating in exercises like Pacific Pathways is extremely valuable because it provides direct Soldier interaction with a new capability like R-FAB.
As "word of mouth" spread through units, more requests came into the R-FAB team. Seeing the "art of the possible" kick-started the imagination and Soldiers brought in several real-world problems.
The broad-based Army team behind the R-FAB system, stretching half-way across the globe, was assembled to execute a daunting task: Demonstrate the value of the point-of-need additive manufacturing to validate deployability and support concepts in support of multiple campaigns with Pacific partner-nations.
The mission: provide Brigade Logistics Support Team support to enable 1st Stryker Brigade to reach the highest state of readiness possible to achieve their training objectives.
The Army team consisted of a variety of participants: the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command /Armament Research, Development Engineering Center (RDECOM -- ARDEC) in partnership with PACOM, USARPAC, USARAK, USARJ, and I Corps.
A RDECOM--ARDEC team led the overall R-FAB effort. This team included the ARDEC Project Officer and support engineers from the Enterprise and System Integration Center (ESIC), Logistics Research and Engineering Directorate's Battlefield Tools and Equipment Division at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, which has the Army mission to perform life-cycle engineering of Army and Marine Corps sets, kits, outfits and tools (SKOT).
The team also included engineers from the ARDEC's Munitions Engineering Technology Center at Picatinny Arsenal, which provided the additive manufacturing expertise. Also participating were members of ARDEC's Warfighter Central and Fusion Cell organizations.
Integrated into R-FAB is a database of pre-existing part files known as the Repository of Additive Parts for Tactical & Operational Readiness or RAPTOR. The database provides a simple graphic user interface, allowing Soldiers to select the existing part file and "hit go." These parts included the 55-gallon drum cap and wrench combination.
The onboard design software allowed Soldiers to innovate in the field and create solutions quickly. The team developed and printed small scale Stryker models and buildings, which were used in a terrain model for logistics planning. No safety critical parts were permitted to be printed and the Brigade Logistics Support Team chief had final approval of the printed parts.
The wide range of product solutions was accomplished with a select group of materials. These printers use a range of polymer-based materials such as:
• Commonly used plastics (known as ABS and PLA) for the butt stock
• Rubber-infused ABS to create flexible parts such as gaskets inside the lens covers
• High strength nylon reinforced with fiberglass to create the lug wrenches.
This range of plastic materials allows many types of solutions to be printed and brought to the field quickly.
Just as important as the materials, are the printers themselves. Five printers were used with different capabilities: the ability to print highly accurate production-level parts; the ability to print the rubber-infused parts; and the ability to print fiberglass infused materials.
As the word of the capability was socialized during the exercises, use of the R-FAB dramatically increased.
Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, the RDECOM Deputy Commanding General, and Bruce McPeak, Deputy Director, Material Systems Directorate, Combined Arms Support Command, visited with Soldiers on the ground during Orient Shield.
They had an opportunity to see parts produced and fitted onto the Stryker cameras. Potts credited the team with making an immediate impact on operations and presented each member with a coin of excellence.
"R-FAB's involvement on Pacific Pathways was a tremendous success and is a major milestone on the path to provide an expeditionary point-of-need solution to the U.S. Army," said Robert Rossi, Competency Director, Logistics Research and Engineering Directorate at Picatinny. The directorate is part of ARDEC's Enterprise & Systems Integration Center.
Inserting an experimental capability late in the planning phase is very complicated. The exercise planners had to adjust to accommodate additional personnel, power, food, transportation and other factors while maintaining the primary mission of achieving the mission objectives.
The leadership teams from RDECOM's Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), 402nd AFSB, 7ID, I Corps G35 and G-4, 1/25 SBCT, USARPAC G37 and USARAK G-4 met weekly for several months to ensure a smooth insertion and extraction from Pacific Pathways.
The expeditionary additive manufacturing capability which ARDEC demonstrated in Pacific Pathways will first transition to the field in the Metal Working Machine Shop Set (MWMSS), as a decision was recently made to include additive manufacturing in this system.
The MWMSS is managed by Product Manager Sets, Kits, Outfits, and Tools (PdM-SKOT) and is being produced at Rock Island Arsenal-Joint Manufacturing Technology Center.