Magazine article Army

Looking at 3-D Printing from All Sides Now: New Technology Offers Major Benefits for Army Maintenance

Magazine article Army

Looking at 3-D Printing from All Sides Now: New Technology Offers Major Benefits for Army Maintenance

Article excerpt

It is August 2020. The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division has rapidly deployed to conduct contingency operations in the Baltics in response to an emerging national security priority. As the brigade establishes the main command post, it realizes - that four plastic pins required for the main digital display are missing. Estimates to receive the pins through the standard Army maintenance sys tern are 24 days or, best case, 14 days with expedited shipping at increased costs. The brigade combat team will have to accept degraded analog capabilities.

Recognizing an opportunity, the brigade maintenance technician directs a maintenance team to fabricate the parts using their organic 3-D printer. That requires a couple of hours of computer-aided design and about 12 hours of printing, but the command post is fully operational the next morning.

Fictional scenarios aside, the purpose of Army maintenance is to preserve the re- ___ quired performance capabilities of Army materiel, or to return those assets to baseline performance capabilities. These actions enable the generation and regeneration of combat power.

According to Army Regulation 750-1: Army Materiel Maintenance Policy, "Army maintenance is founded on the principle that the useful service life of Army equipment is achieved when the item is maintained in accordance with its designed or engineered specifications." This requires repair parts that meet manufacturers' specifications, allowing the equipment to be operated in accordance with its original design.

How It's Done

Also known as additive manufacturing or stereolithography, 3-D printing has the ability to create repair parts of various materials, providing an on-demand source. In 3-D printing, successive layers of material are formed under computer control to create an object. This repetitive process occurs in slices, enabling the object to gain volume. The manufacturing equipment fabricates the three-dimensional object using a computer-aided design sketch.

This is a burgeoning industry that continually adapts and improves as the technology advances. Its application within the U.S. Army, and specifically its implementation at the brigade combat team level, could change how leaders approach the concept of prescribed load lists, revolutionize parts acquisition, and dramatically improve equipment operational readiness rates.

The U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force has already brought 3-D printing into operational theaters. The force has provided innovative solutions to many problems, including valve stem guards, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon bipod links, and handheld mine detector light mounts. Beyond the manufacture of these nonstandard parts, 3-D printing has the capability to produce standard parts made from a variety of plastics and metals, depending on the type of object being created.

The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Mass., has even generated 3-D printed food that is tailored to each soldier's needs. Combined with individual sensors that track a soldier's metabolism, the feedback could be incorporated into creating the next meal, ensuring soldiers receive individual levels of nutrients.

The U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations' Rapid Innovation Cell has already permanently installed a printer on the USS Essex. The crew has made objects including disposable medical supplies and an oil tank cap. However, they are not creating structural or mechanical parts because the generated ones do not yet show the same strength and overall properties of cast parts.

Positives and Negatives

Comparing positive and negative implications for the adoption of 3-D printing produces long lists on each side. The potential for production of parts in an isolated area cut off from logistics support is high, but the current challenges faced in bringing the full potential to reality are high as well.

Benefits include:

* Reducing the initial amount of strategic lift for power projection by reducing the weight and volume of spare parts being brought with the organization. …

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