Pacific Pathways: Army Ventures Further into 3D Printing During Experimental Exercises


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3D printing and the military go way back—but as this technology has entered the mainstream and grown in popularity exponentially, it is becoming much more common for personnel to enjoy designated labs where they can innovate, prototype, and make replacement parts on demand. Like so many other industries and businesses around the globe, numerous divisions of the military have latched on to the substantial benefits of 3D design and 3D printing as they can create strong, lightweight parts and manufacture them as needed on-site and in remote locations, doing so quickly and affordably.

We’ve followed as the Navy has made 3D printed parts for submarines, the Marines have utilized a 3D printing training program, and the Army has moved forward with a variety of 3D printing applications to include drones. Now, Army personnel can also look forward to using 3D printing for further experimentation in making equipment for exercises in Pacific Pathways, a program created four years ago to allow for military readiness in the Asia-Pacific areas. Currently, The US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) has experimented with three different technologies for Pacific Pathways:

  • Rapid Fabrication via Additive Manufacturing on the Battlefield (R-FAB)
  • Fight Tonight Emergency Fuel Distribution System
  • Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T)

“Putting equipment into exercises for experimentation allows the technology community to learn early lessons about how equipment performs in a realistic environment, how Soldiers will actually use the equipment and what capabilities should be included in the final product,” said Andrew Wood, RDECOM – Pacific experimentation director for U.S. Army Pacific. “A formal operational test is too late in the life cycle to learn these lessons.”

Using R-FAB during a Pacific Pathways exercise in September 2017, soldiers printed a Common Remotely Operated Weapon System night vision camera cover, left. The cover on the right is the original part from the manufacturer. With R-FAB, Soldiers print commonly used and new parts in the field. [Image: US Army]

Army units engage in Pacific Pathways exercises for several months at a time, in coordination with different Pacific nations, to include:

  • Orient Shield with Japan
  • Cobra Gold and Hanuman Guardian with Thailand
  • Foal Eagle with South Korea
  • Balikatan with the Philippines
  • Garuda Shield with Indonesia
  • Keris Strike with Malaysia

Planning may take place up to a year in advance, especially in consideration to technology that needs to be delivered for experimentation—and ultimately, valuable feedback after the exercises are completed.

3D printing is one of the primary technologies being experimented with via the portable R-FAB facility, mobilizing 3D printers (two large ones, and three smaller ones) to necessary sites. The R-FAB has been used previously in Hanuman Guardian in August 2017 and Orient Shield in September 2017. Personnel can create new parts as well as replacements, digging into their 3D archive and database of existing designs from the Repository of Additive Parts for Tactical & Operational Readiness (RAPTOR). Soldiers were training in 3D printing for the previous exercises at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, learning not only about the technology itself but also how to set up the portable 3D printing shelter.

They made camera lens covers for their Stryker vehicle during Orient Shield and were able to do so within four hours.

Soldiers used R-FAB during a Pacific Pathways exercise in September 2017 to print a camera lens cover for a Stryker vehicle in four hours. Rapidly manufacturing the part enabled soldiers to continue conducting the mission even when Typhoon Talim made landfall during the exercise. [Image: US Army]

“A camera lens cover may seem like a trivial part, but it actually deadlines the vehicle because driving without a lens cover will damage the camera lens, degrading the capability and damaging a costly item,” said Wood. “Making a quick replacement part using the R-FAB enabled those vehicles to continue to conduct their missions until the supply system could provide standard replacement parts.”

Feedback was instrumental as Army officials learned that the environmental control unit for R-FAB would need to be made larger to work in areas with extremely hot weather. As a rule, they would also be requiring military generators. They also learned that in the previous Hanuman Guardian exercise, soldiers did not use the 3D printers much because they did not yet understand what they could do with the technology.

“Part of the intent of the exercises was to see how well the system stood up to multiple deployments as part of the same operation,” said Wood. “One area where the system will be improved is in ruggedness for multiple moves during operations.”

The Army is also refining the F-FAB unit at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. They will test it further in a year-long operation in Korea this summer. Another R-FAB has also just been tested in Germany.

In the Fight Tonight Emergency Fuel Distribution System, soldiers will continue to work in exercises to deploy fuel more efficiently, assessing:

  • Fuel distribution
  • Deployability
  • Reliability
  • Transportability
  • Remote system control

Soldiers from the 339th Quartermaster Company and the 498th Combat Service Support Battalion used existing culverts to thread 9,500 feet of lay-flat hose though pipes during the Combined Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore exercise at Pohang, South Korea, last spring. The hose is part of the Fight Tonight Emergency Fuel Distribution System, which can deliver 720,000 gallons of fuel per day. [Image: Drew Downing, RDECOM]

Soldiers recently participated in the combined Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore exercise March 22 – April 16, 2017, at Pohang, South Korea:

“The Soldiers could have deployed and retrieved the system much faster; however, given that we conducted this experiment during an exercise, we were not allowed to execute many of the field-expedient measures we might normally consider,” said Drew Downing, RDECOM science adviser to US Army Pacific. “For instance, road crossings: In a conflict operation, we would break through the road surface to bury the hose line using a culvert kit. However, during the exercise we were forced to find existing culverts in the road network and thread the hose through the pipe, which is extremely time-consuming.”

The Army is also delving into use with robotics as they expand their manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) program, previously highlighted during an initiative in 2016.

“The MUM-T concept is a unique capability that links Soldiers to future unmanned air, ground and sensor domains. The MUM-T capability extends the Soldiers’ reach by enhancing situational awareness and providing better protection and lethality options,” said Lonnie Freiburger, Emerging Capabilities Office project manager at RDECOM’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Teaming up with robots [Image: Kimberly Bratic, TARDEC Public Affairs]

A mounted version, named the Robotic Capability Breach Concept, offers added features such as:

  • Detection of minefields
  • Support for fires and intelligence
  • Surveillance and reconnaissance
  • Deployment of a mine-clearing line charge to clear a path for tanks, vehicles, and personnel

These are just a few examples of how the Army is exploring ways to use new technology, and see it delivered expediently to soldiers during planned exercises and while in the field.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below.

[Source: United States Army Acquisition Support Center]




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