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.

X-FAB is a completely self-contained facility, with the following features:

  • Collapsible 20×20 foot shelter
  • Four 3D printers
  • 3D scanner
  • CAD software

While X-Fab is not formally in use yet, forces have been working together to test and evaluate the facility. Last month, Marine Corps Systems Command and Marine Corps Installations and Logistics worked together with machinists from the 2nd Maintenance Battalion of Camp Lejeune. They created a prototype of the lab and will continue to test it through September 1. After that, the teams will be reporting on their assessments and giving feedback regarding its functionality.

“Additive manufacturing is perfectly suited for the machinist community’s mission,” said Ed Howell, program manager for Supply and Maintenance Systems at MCSC. “We don’t know where the technology will take us, but this is a great opportunity to find out what Marines think about it and explore the viability of additive manufacturing for the C7912 Shop Equipment, Machine Shop.”

The shop Howell refers to is also known as SEMS. This is another self-sustained shelter/lab that assists military forces in the field. SEMS offers a variety of tools to include a milling machine and a lathe. Not only are they able to fix cars, but also weapons and other vital pieces of military equipment. X-FAB will offer further resources for Marine maintenance shops.

Gunnery Sgt. Doug McCue, a machinist with the 2nd Maintenance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, demonstrates the capabilities of a large-build 3D printer in the X-FAB Facility Aug. 1 [Image: Kaitlin Kelly]

As is often the benefit with 3D printing, a more conservative footprint will be maintained as battalions traveling with X-FAB will not have to carry inventories of spare parts, but can make them on demand instead.

“X-FAB will also enable us to better support Marines by getting platforms back in the fight faster,” said Master Sgt. Carlos Lemus, staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the Additive Manufacturing and Innovation Cell with 2nd Maintenance Battalion. “We are looking to exploit this capability, because it has the potential to cut out the time it takes to order and receive parts; instead of waiting weeks or a month for a part, our machinists can get the part out by the end of the day.”

This new resource should serve as a welcome change to Marines who currently do not have access to such technology—and especially not in the field or at remote outposts.

“In a contested environment where ships cannot easily land, or airplanes cannot necessarily fly in and deliver goods, Marines need a way to support themselves—at least temporarily,” said Lt. Col. Howie Marotto, Additive Manufacturing lead at Marine Corps Installations and Logistics. “The deployable X-FAB would give them another outlet to supply themselves until the regular logistics or supply chain can support them. In some cases, they can even create a capability they didn’t have before, like 3D printed drones.”

While self-sustainability is a huge benefit for many users of 3D printing, it is easy to see why that would be so important for any branch of the military. Being able to create on-demand could make an enormous difference for military operations.

According to Ted Roach, a program analyst in MCSC’s Supply and Maintenance Systems, the X-FAB unit requires four Marines to operate, with several hours required for setup. While transportability options are being examined, it is currently transported on a flatbed truck.

“Today, X-FAB is purely experimental and exploratory, funded by Department of Defense research and development dollars,” Roach said.

Evaluations and attention to feedback will be crucial as the project continues—with X-FAB possibly being sent aboard military ships for testing as well.

“We plan to integrate X-FAB into various environments and see what’s within the realm of possibilities,” he said. “With additive manufacturing, you’re only limited by the size of your printer and your imagination.”

Discuss in the X-FAB forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Defense Video Imagery Distribution System]

 

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