A Closer Look at the Many Uses for Additive Manufacturing & Augmented Reality in America’s Military Forces


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dod3D printing and additive manufacturing are reshaping the military in America, and in other countries as well. Marines in California took a short class in 2016 about how to best use 3D printing to solve problems on-site, the DON COOL Hub for both the Navy and the Marines uses a Zeus 3D printer, and the Air Force was investigating flexible 3D printed hybrid electronics a couple years ago. A recent study by Defence IQ showed that over 28% of surveyed stakeholders and military professionals are actively looking into developing and implementing additive manufacturing-based systems. The US Army explains that, as it continues to increase its AM footprint, it’s developed an AM technology roadmap, which recently merged into an overarching Department of Defense (DOD) roadmap.

This breaching tool, which is used to open doors and crates or to cut wires and other material, evolved from the initial pattern on the left to the final product on the far right. Based on Soldier feedback on the original design, contouring to the handle for safety and grip was added, as well as quick change blades and hex holes so that it can be used as a wrench. [Image: US Army]

This breaching tool, used to open doors and crates or to cut wires and other material, evolved from the initial pattern on the left to the final product on the right. Based on Soldier feedback on the original design, contouring to the handle for safety and grip was added, as well as quick change blades and hex holes for use as a wrench. [Image: US Army]

The DOD roadmap identifies the current, and future, capabilities necessary to enable AM, and is also made up of the technical objectives and common requirements already laid out in other AM roadmaps from other individual government agencies, like the Navy, Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), and the Air Force. A presidential initiative was put forth in 2012 to stimulate and accelerate AM in our country, and as part of that initiative, the Manufacturing USA (National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) was established. It provided agencies assistance in creating their AM roadmaps. The ultimate goal is to use the influence of the AM technology roadmap from the DOD as a complete AM roadmap that will “set the course for the DOD, industry and academia to effectively use AM.”

Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command commanding general, said, “The Army relies on the manufacturing prowess of industry to keep our Soldiers the best-equipped in the world because having the best equipment, the right equipment in the right quantity when you need it is an essential component of making our Soldiers the safest and most effective in the world.”

These parts were made using additive manufacturing, which creates plastic items and other durable components by adding material, layer by layer, using 3-D printers. [Image: US Army]

These military parts were made using additive manufacturing. [Image: US Army]

Representatives from the DLA, Army, Air Force, Navy, and the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manufacturing & Industrial Base Policy met with senior leaders at Manufacturing USA in 2014, to begin discussing the DOD’s AM technology roadmap. The final version was put together using information culled from AM workshops that these military representatives attended.

The Army’s specific AM roadmap was guided by the Army Manufacturing Technology program, which is itself managed by a major subordinate command of the US Army Materiel Command, RDECOM. In the roadmap, the Army says that it plans to use AM “to improve readiness by repairing or producing spare parts or by creating new parts in real-time as close to the point of need as possible.” Additively manufactured parts can save time and money, because they eliminate the need to ship spare parts – they can instead be produced right in the field, without needing to retool, cast, or mold. The US Navy has experience with this already, having designed the tiny, cost effective TruClip.

us-navy-logoSpeaking of the Navy, earlier this month, members of the Disruptive Technology Laboratory (DTL) with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division met with Microsoft and John Hopkins University representatives, to talk about a joint collaboration on the potential naval applications and opportunities for augmented reality technology. The potential exists for the three to discover new uses in the Navy and Marine Corps for Microsoft’s HoloLens, an all-in-one, augmented reality face-mounted computer.

Garry Shields, DTL director, said, “What we are trying to do is pull partners — the warfare centers, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — into a common project to demonstrate multiple interface for platforms and simulations on a common system, potentially using the HoloLens.”

microsoft-hololensAt this meeting, David Marra, with Microsoft’s HoloLens group, explained the development of the HoloLens to the DTL members, and referenced its “unique components,” such as translucent displays and sophisticated sensors, while breaking down the differences between mixed reality and virtual reality. Then, Shields defined the role of the DTL, which is one of the Carderock Division’s “innovation engines.” It brings about technological innovations for the Navy while working with other government agencies, private industry, and academic institutions to incubate and develop new ideas for the fleet.

“We democratize innovation and make sure everyone has a voice and their ideas are treated the same. We build networks to bridge gaps between funding sources and organizations at the beginning. We find ideas, we find who finds value in the ideas, and they’ll pick it up. When I deal with the private sector, it’s a matter of showing them what the market is for their ideas. Through this vessel, they get a reach to all these other organizations. We do a lot of stuff out here very cheaply, very efficiently, to demonstrate capabilities. There’s no overhead in this organization, but we’ve delivered roughly $120 million of direct funding for projects,” explained Shields.

Recently, DTL, along with partners in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and the Department of Energy, created the DOD’s largest additively manufactured object, a 30-foot-long, proof-of-concept hull print that’s modeled after the Mark 8 Mod 1 SEAL Delivery Vehicle. It’s called the Optionally Manned Technology Demonstrator (OMTD) Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) Test Article…say that five times fast. This BAAM Test Article gave engineers with the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University a platform to create a HoloLens digital interface that’s able to control, or simulate control, of the vehicle. By using the HoloLens headset with this newly created simulator, the engineers created software that can physically impact the device controls, letting them “flip switches and move sliders on the heads-up display.” DTL has demonstrated the platform, and the BAAM Test Article, to other organizations who recognize its value, including Microsoft representatives.


Joseph Curran, an ocean engineer with the Welding, Processing and Nondestrcutive Evaluation Branch at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, explains how to use the HoloLens to Henry Molintas, a mechanical engineer in Carderock’s Propulsor Manufacturing Office. [Photo: US Navy by Kelley Stirling/Released]

Shields explained that the concept of utilizing augmented reality on ships is a natural result of the DTL’s long-time work with exoskeletons, and foresees a new type of Navy ship design: the human-centric ship, where humans’ main role would just be decision-making. Hardware controls, such as the HoloLens simulator, could potentially replace the control stations on the bridge, by making the controls accessible all over the ship through these types of devices. However, he thinks that cognitive augmentation could also play a role in human-centric ships, where intelligent textile technology could be accessed by the HoloLens and used to monitor biometrics of the sailors onboard.

The DTL is working with naval architect Mike Alban, with Carderock’s Center for Innovation in Ship Design, to develop the next version of the OMTD. The second iteration will include more systems and capabilities that can be controlled using the HoloLens, in another APL-designed interface. DTL member Harry Whittaker says they helped with a Naval Innovative Science and Engineering/Section 219 proposal, to continue investigating the various applications of augmented reality on naval platforms. The proposal was accepted, and work should begin later this month. Discuss in the Military forum at 3DPB.com.

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