Army Doctrine Publication 4-0 defines improvisation as the final principle of sustainment, specifically “the ability to adapt sustainment operations to unexpected situations or circumstances affecting a mission.” The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) demonstrated a textbook example of successful logistics improvisation and a potential window into the future of additive manufacturing through its efforts to protect the force during the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of mission-essential equipment, open source information, and empowered subject matter experts allowed the 11th ACR to convert its existing 3D printers into a production center for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
The 11th ACR already makes regular use of additive manufacturing in support of its role as the opposing force (OPFOR) unit at the National Training Center. The combination of a high operational tempo and aging fleet of vehicles places a premium on the availability of repair parts to keep the Regiment in the fight through 10 rotations a year. To meet this need, the Regimental Support Squadron’s Service and Recovery (S&R) Section fabricates unusual or otherwise difficult to acquire parts via milling, waterjet, and various other Computer Numerical Code (CNC) machines.
This additive manufacturing capability dramatically increased in January 2019 with the acquisition of three 3D printers. The 3D printers occupy an important logistical niche; producing small plastic subcomponents of systems that are otherwise unavailable through the G-CSSA system. 3D models of components are either obtained through reverse engineering the needed part or the Army’s Data Repository for Additive Parts for Tactical and Operational Readiness (RAPTOR). These 3D model “slice” or “.stl” codes are then loaded into the 3D printer, which autonomously prints the parts. Once quality checks are performed, the part can be used to conduct repairs for pennies on the dollar.
Training is the largest constraint on the employment of additive manufacturing. Currently formal army instruction on 3D modeling is limited to training on the Computer Aided Design (CAD) system provided to Allied Trade Warrant Officers (MOS 914A) for the use of CNC machines. However, 3D printing utilizes a similar but non-identical operating system known as Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). As there is currently no formal Army training on CAM, S&R has largely learned the system on the job, exploiting their knowledge of CAD and information gleaned from civilian education.
To expand his section’s knowledge base, S&R’s Officer in Charge Chief Warrant Officer Two Justin Allen regularly corresponds with other professional 3D printing organizations, both civilian and military. The emergence of the COVID-19 virus shifted these organizational discussions to the possibility of producing medical repair parts and PPE. On his own initiative, Allen researched S&R’s internal production capabilities for PPE.
Designs for both a face-shield and N95 substitute mask were selected from the National Institute of Health (NIoH)’s free, online, and open source database of 3D-printable PPE. The ‘Montana Mask’ selected as the N-95 substitute demonstrates the improvisational power of additive manufacturing. Originally designed for the Billings Medical Clinic of Billings Montana, the Montana Mask is specifically designed to stretch the medical resources of isolated healthcare systems. It provides a 3D-printed protective framework, with a filter composed of just one fourth of a disposable surgical mask. As a result each disposable surgical mask’s material can be used up to four times, greatly increasing stocks of PPE.
Allen then conducted proof of concept production runs for both designs. These successful production runs demonstrated that S&R could produce a batch of four masks or six face-shields every eight hours with a material cost of $1.40 or $3.61 per mask or shield respectively. News of the success was shared with the rest of the Regiment and the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity, Fort Irwin, California, , both of which quickly set orders for the production of supplementary PPE. To meet the demand two additional commercial off-the-shelf printers were acquired, at a cost of $6,000, nearly doubling the section’s production output. As of early May S&R produced 154 masks and 416 face-shields at a combined material cost of $1,719. Additively manufactured face-shields are now provided to Soldiers and Civilians across Fort Irwin, California, with missions that put them at risk for viral transmission. Health care workers, culinary specialists in the post dining facilities, and personnel within the Department of Emergency Services all make daily use of equipment produced by S&R.
S&R continues to refine its products with a new focus on producing masks designed to stand-up to prolonged outdoor usage in the heat Mojave Desert. Both the design of the Montana Mask and the filament used in its manufacture are not ideal for prolonged outdoor use. In particular the ‘PLA’ filament used in the initial production can warp and fade during prolonged exposure to heat and ultraviolet light, compromising the seal of masks. To avoid this S&R production has shifted production to the acrylic ‘APA’ filament, which is better suited for use outdoors. Research into a more robust replacement for the Montana Mask is also underway.
The 11th ACR continues to build upon its success with additive manufacturing by extending its capabilities by purchasing a 3D scanner. Once put into use, the 3D scanner allows the section to conduct scans on pre-existing parts, and automatically load the data into .stl files for later use. This drastically reduces the amount of needed research needed to create 3D slices, increasing responsiveness to new designs.
S&R is poised to be among the first operational units in the conventional Army to acquire the ‘Metal-X’ 3D printer produced by Markforged Inc. The Metal-X represents a massive leap forward in additive manufacturing, allowing the unit to produce metal parts for the first time. A true force multiplier, these parts will be used to rapidly repair vehicles and return them to the rotational fight. This is especially important given the Regiment’s fleet of M113A3 Opposing Force Surrogate Vehicles, whose combination of age and modified equipment makes sourcing CL IX repair parts a challenge.
Initially, these locally designed parts will be used for temporary repairs and replaced by conventionally manufactured parts as they reach the unit. However, as the Army expands its additive manufacturing capabilities and official 3D slice-models are released by TACOM, usage will greatly increase. Units will produce some of their own repair parts locally easing the Class IX repair part supply system. Orders for numerous small widgets and subcomponents are replaced by a handful of different metal and plastic filaments. This in turn consolidates the lines of the brigade authorized stockage list, improving deployability.
Additive manufacturing is a game-changing way ahead, greatly strengthening the pillars of sustainment. As units gain the capability to produce their own repair parts, the supply system is simplified to only those parts that cannot be readily manufactured on sight. Once manufacturing assets are in place, parts are produced continuously and at extremely low material costs; especially when weighed against the cost of ordering a higher assembly. This in turn improves the survivability of the maintenance program; filament is easily stored and transported in bulk, reducing the number of Class IX resupply missions. At the same time printers and scanners themselves are relatively small and easily transported expeditiously by its owning unit.
The RAPTOR database, regularly updated by units across the Army, is a force multiplier in terms of anticipating and responding to logistical needs. As the database expands with new and improved 3D models, that collective knowledge becomes available at the literal push of a button. Commonly needed part designs can be pulled in advance; while the Army wide database allows uncommon component designs to be found and put into production rapidly. The result is an environment where it is possible to effectively crowd-source solutions to maintenance challenges. Just as the NIoH’s database of PPE is refined by end users with best practices and new designs, RAPTOR does the same. The problem of how to produce a particular part will only have to be solved a single time, at which point the solution will be available to the entire Army.
The 11th ACR’s use of additive manufacture of PPE and continued production of repair parts is a window to the future of Army sustainment. The ability to produce a wide range of components from a single raw material and machine, enhances the ability of creative thinking and disciplined initiative to solve complex problem sets.
Lt. Col. William "Joe" Parker currently serves as the Senior Sustainment Trainer in Operations Group at the Army's National Training Center. He recently commanded the Regimental Support Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Irwin, California. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wake Forest University, a MMAS in Operational Art and Sciences from the Command and General Staff College, and a MA in Procurement and Acquisition Management from Webster University.
First Lt. Kevin Lenahan III serves as the maintenance/Class IX support officer in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Regimental Support Squadron at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Admin/Accounting from The Citadel, South Carolina. He was commissioned as an Ordnance officer.