Additive manufacturing—colloquially known as 3D printing—is starting to revolutionize military logistics. Recently, a U.S. Marine Corps unit— Combat Logistic Battalion 31, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit—provided a replacement part for a forward deployed Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121).
The aircraft in question had a small plastic component on its landing gear door wear out. While the piece was relatively small and insignificant, it nonetheless would have required the entire door assembly to be replaced. However, the Marines were able to print out a new bumper and install it in a matter of days rather than waiting for weeks for a new replacement door assembly to arrive.
U.S. Marines with Combat Logistic Battalion 31 (CLB), part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), are using 3D printing to create spare parts.
The 31st MEU deploys with little notice, as the need arises. The nature of their mission means that sending replacement parts around the world is not often feasible, something that leads Sgt. Adrian Willis to say to the official U.S Marines site that “3D printing is definitely the future – it’s absolutely the direction the Marine Corps needs to be going”
The U.S. Naval Air System Command (NAVAIR) is ramping up production of 3D printed parts.
System Command estimates that it will have approximately 1,000 3D printed parts approved for use across the fleet before the end of 2018. Currently only 135 3D printed parts are authorised for use.
3D printing helmets to flight-critical parts
3D printed parts will be used in a range of Naval applications, from modifications to helmets to critical parts for aircraft: NAVAIR categorizes parts depending on their air-worthiness. Parts not requiring airworthiness can be fabricated more quickly.
In 2016 NAVAIR proved that 3D printing could be used to produce safety-critical parts with the successful flight of an MV-22B Osprey, fitted with a 3D printed titanium engine nacelle link and attachment. Last spring, a 3D printed flip-top valve was added to the T-45 Goshawk breathing mask, allowing pilots in training to breathe cabin air up to a certain altitude. 300 valves were printed within a month without which training would have been impossible.
Sometimes, an urgently needed spare part is not available aboard and it would be both too expensive and too time-consuming to send an aircraft fly to a base where it could be obtained via the logistical supply chain. This is why 3D printers have been installed in US aircraft carriers. And these are able to print impressively large objects in a wide variety of appropriate materials.
The same technique is spreading among the ground forces in some large-scale operations. It is the case for the NATO-led Resolute Support operation in Afghanistan. The foundations for the use of this technology have been laid in Mazar-e Sharif in what is commonly called the “maintenance mile”. By means of 3D printing, individual requirements from the soldiers on operations can be fulfilled more quickly.
Researchers are learning more about how explosions work, and using 3D printing to control the release of energy.
There’s one maxim that Hollywood films and real life actually have in common: Explosives are serious business. The idea of arming and disarming them in movies such as the Hurt Locker and The Italian Job can be as intense as real life. The ignition system is incredibly important—if you have an ignition that goes off easily, it might go off when you don’t want it to. However, if the ignition system is more stable, it might not go off when you want it to.
In a paper from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Alex Mueller is leading a team to create the next-generation of explosives using 3D printing. By examining the microstructure and manipulating internal hollow spaces of TNT, the scientists are trying to control and tailor a new form of explosives.
The technology behind 3D printing has been around since the 90s, but its new-found popularity means it’s being used more often in homes and, maybe soon, on the battlefield.
On the West Coast of America however, the 1st Maintainance Battalion of the US Marines were tasked with experimenting with the technology to see how it might be used by the military.
What they found was an application that could change the shape of a conflict.
nside a shipping container on Camp Pendleton, something’s happening that could revolutionise the way battles are fought and won.
The switch the staff are printing regularly breaks. It’s not a part that’s replaceable so when it goes – it usually means $10,000 for a new set of goggles and if you’re on the frontline it could take weeks to reach you.
3D printed drone technology has been an emerging area over the past year, with military surveillance use seeing a particular boom.
To add to the recent developments in drone delivery systems and swarming dronespurpose built to be air dropped, U.S. Marine TOW gunner Cpl. Rhet McNeal has developed a hand-launched fixed wing drone, with the help of NexLog (the US Marine Corps’ “Next Generation Logistics innovation group”, in conjunction with Penn State university) and Autodesk.
Autodesk is a CAD design development software company that additionally offers residencies to developers with full access of professional tools and advice at their purpose built Pier 9 workshop in San Francisco, California.
While it may seem that nearly every type of industry today is making use of 3D printing, this applies to the US military also. And while they may employ creativity while making new parts just like everyone else, most US government offices and aspects of the military have detailed plans and long-range goals for how they plan to use the technology wisely.
The United States Marine Corps has been very active in using 3D printing, from creating drones to considering ways that the technology can be used in combat. They have also continued to dream up ways that 3D printing can be made more accessible for their forces. With X-Fab (expeditionary fabrication), they have now created a portable lab that can move with maintenance units for Marine battalions.
It usually takes the Navy around five months to build even the smallest submarines to ferry Navy SEALs into and out of combat zones — but thanks to new technology, the Navy’s most elite warfighters could slap together a submersible hull in just a few weeks.
That’s the promise behind the Optionally Manned Technology Demonstrator (OMTD), the U.S. military’s first 3D-printed submarine hull, unveiled by the Navy on July 24. Fabricated by the high-tech Big Area Additive Manufacturing 3D printing machine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the 30-foot submersible hull was inspired by the SEAL Delivery Vehicles used by the branch and U.S. Special Operations Command to deploy Navy special warriors and their gear into particularly dangerous areas.
Many of today’s weapons systems and platforms are legacy systems that were designed and manufactured decades ago, and now require expensive repair or replacement parts—and those parts are unavailable.
“Take the B-52 bomber, for instance,” says Brig. Gen. Allan E. Day, commander of Defense Logistics Agency Aviation. “It’s a legacy system that’s going to be on the flight line for a long time,” Day’s organization, DLA Aviation, supports more than 1,800 weapon systems and is the DoD’s manager for more than 1.1 million national stock number items, industrial retail supply, and depot-level repairable acquisitions. He hopes 3D printing will be a game changer for logistics and keeping legacy systems operational and economically viable.