U.S. Marines and Navy Collaborate on Tactical 3D Printing Kits

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Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Carderock Division announced that it is partnering with the US Marine Corps (USMC) on completing the final testing phases for a new 3D printing tactical kit. Named the Tactical Fabrication (TACFAB) additive manufacturing (AM) kit, it is similar to the Expeditionary Fabrication System (XFAB), which NSWC Carderock and NSWC, Crane Division helped deliver to USMC bases around the world in 2022.

However, there are key differences to the TACFAB, mostly involving the platform’s deployability. It is a much smaller and lighter system, specifically engineered to achieve optimal mobility. As opposed to the XFAB, which was made exclusively for Marine machinists and welders, the TACFAB is for general purpose use, meaning it will be deployed in a much wider and more diverse range of environments.

Bird’s-eye view of NSWC Carderock

In a press release announcing NSWC, Carderock Division’s work on the TACFAB AM kit, Brennen Cheung, one of the Carderock engineers on the TACFAB team, explained, “TACFAB is essentially three hard transit cases that can fit on the back of a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle or Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, rather than having to be towed by a larger heavy-duty Logistic Vehicle System Replacement. It is designed to be deployed as far forward in the field as possible. The original prototype for this was fielded in 2016. We had a limited user experience prototype fielded to a few different Marine Corps bases. We received feedback from them, which then led to us getting funding for this to be a Program of Record in 2021.”

The Markforged MARK Two printer on top of one of the TACFAB cases

According to the Department of Defense (DoD), a “Program of Record” (POR) is a US military “Acquisition Program which is a directed, funded effort that provides a new, improved or continuing materiel, weapon, or information system or service capability in response to an approved need.” Thus, POR status is especially significant for technological applications that have reached the middle of the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) range, as that is the turning point in the process between R&D and full-scale deployment.

The press release notes that the fielding decision for the TACFAB was expected to be made by the end of May, so the kit might have already gotten final approval to move on to the next phase in the process. That next phase entails an approved acquisition objective for NSWC Carderock to field 34 TACFAB kits to assorted USMC bases by the end of 2023, with a total of 168 scheduled over the next three to five years. At USMC training centers in California, North Carolina, Japan, and Hawaii, Carderock technicians will teach Marine instructors on how to use the TACFAB, who will, in turn, train USMC specialists.

In my interview with Carderock engineer Scott Ziv, he explained both how the US military’s primary objective with AM is to be able to make as many things as possible in as many different environments as possible, as well as how organizations like the warfare centers and Manufacturing USA institutes are helping to actualize that objective. The TACFAB kit perfectly encapsulates the practical connection between those two topics. Perhaps most critically, it sheds light on how many more US servicemembers there will be, just a few years from now, who will have 3D printing know-how.

Additionally, it illustrates that, while the buildup of US military AM capabilities is certainly a quite gradual development, every link in the sequence is benefitting from data garnered by the previous link, as well as helping to streamline and optimize all the subsequent ones. To put this more bluntly, the US military is succeeding at its long-term AM goals, and success keeps breeding more success. This not only validates the assumption that the momentum on this front will be sustained, but also suggests how much more quickly the progress could accelerate once DoD is deeper into the commercialization phase.

Images courtesy of NSWC Carderock

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