U.S. Military Innovation Pushed to the Frontlines with Advanced Manufacturing

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Since at least World War One, the U.S. military has been the principle driver of American technological innovation. This is such a well-worn narrative by now — subsuming the origins of everything from nukes to the internet — that it hardly needs to be expanded upon. Lately, however, an increasingly significant tweak to the story is emerging, one which will have permanent effects on the future relationship between combat and technology. Moreover, this doesn’t involve a groundbreaking new invention. Rather, it entails a broad-sweeping innovation to the very act of how things get invented, catalyzed by the full range of advanced manufacturing techniques.

Military R&D is no longer being relegated solely to academic and nonprofit institutions, but is taking place at the ground level, on the fly, and in the next decade, is poised to move at an exponential rate to the frontlines. Although there are many different technological fields involved in this transformation, 3D printing and robotics are the central ones, with the overlap between the two seeming to be of especially high priority in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) latest R&D funding efforts.

The idea that you can not only create spare parts, but entirely new products, close to or even at the frontlines of combat isn’t new, and is indeed a driving force behind the Pentagon’s gradual buildup of capacity for additive manufacturing (AM) in the defense industrial base over the last decade. The difference now is that the idea is finally nearing actualization in the everyday routines of the US military, not to mention all the other militaries across the planet.

Military 3D Printing in Extreme Cold

This is evident across all areas of the U.S. armed forces, at every level of the sprawled Leviathan that is the Pentagon. A few weeks ago, for instance, the DoD’s Manufacturing Technology office announced the winners of a competition called the “Point of Need Challenge,” the objective of which is exactly what you’d expect. One of the winners was a company I write about frequently, almost always in this same general context of producing at the frontlines: SPEE3D, the Australian cold spray AM original equipment manufacturer (OEM). SPEE3D won for a proposal to print equivalent or superior parts in extreme subzero temperatures.

The nScrypt nRugged system, also in the featured image. Images courtesy of nScrypt

Another 3D printing OEM, Orlando’s nScrypt, won for a similar proposal, involving the use of the company’s nRugged platform to fabricate replacement PCBs in -40° weather. nScrypt’s winning proposal also included printing a customized biomedical brace in the same type of environment. In particular, that indicates precisely how, once all of this equipment is successfully being deployed at scale, it is not just going to be used to print replacements for legacy parts. The broader point, in fact, is that the U.S. military wants its soldiers to be logistically capable of making things that they won’t even know they’ll need until the need arises.

U.S. Navy Invents New Tool with 3D Printing

In the past week alone, several news stories and press releases were published that highlight this exact theme, in the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines. Probably the most striking example is a recent development at the U.S. Navy’s Southeast Regional Maintenance Center (SERMC), in Mayport, FL.

A Machinist’s Mate for SERMC’s AM Coordinator Chief, Nicholas Heinrich, collaborated with one of the center’s civilian technicians, Terry Henderson, to invent an entirely new tool. The tool’s invention was necessitated by an issue with the latest version of the MK 15 Phalanx Close-in Weapons System (CWIS), which includes new gear motors that power its Electro-Optical Stabilization Subsystem (EOSS), the capability allowing it to take down drones and small, high-speed surface vessels.

The MK 15 Phalanx CIWS. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The issue involves replacing those new motors. It previously required the technicians doing the job to have a high level of experience, and yet still led to a relatively high failure rate. As Henderson explained to DVIDS, “We were utilizing wire straps anchored to the motor for removal and replacement…[which] was heavily dependent on technique that came with experience because physical control of the new motor during reassembly was lacking…” After deciding that a new, machined tool still missed the mark, the team shifted to metal 3D printing, resulting in the creation, design, production, and testing of a brand new — and successful — tool, all in a total of six weeks.

The old tool for removing and replacing motors on the MK 15 Phalanx CIWS. Image courtesy of DVIDS, SERMC, and Scott Curtis

In the DVIDS post about the new tool, Heinrich explained, “The self-aligning design we came up with allows the motors to be quickly and easily removed or installed with great precision…Our handle prevents binding by concentrically aligning the motor to the support sleeve, so technique is no longer a requirement, enabling seizure-free replacement of the motor every time, regardless of the individual skill level involved.”

Captain Justin Dowd, the Commanding Officer at SERMC, said, “3D printers provide opportunities for creative problem-solving by empowering Sailors to take ownership of their repairs. SERMC’s continuing technological growth is possible because someone in our organization said, ‘There’s a better way to do this’, and took advantage of our [AM] capabilities.”

Nicholas Heinrich holding the 3D printed tool. Image courtesy of DVIDS, SERMC, and Scott Curtis

Advanced Manufacturing Integrated Directly into Armed Forces

That last statement perfectly sums up the central unifying thread that is pushing DoD in this direction: the people actually responsible for carrying out U.S. military missions on a day-to-day basis can no longer do their job if they’re constantly waiting for higher-ups to approve every turn of a screwdriver or push of a button. This doesn’t mean that a new tool like the one that SERMC created will instantly go from the drawing board to mass production. Rather, it means that the administrative side of the largest bureaucracy in history is now genuinely interested in feedback from the rank-and-file.

Additionally, that feedback is now being met with actual channels that can realistically direct the best ideas into the aggregate military supply chain. In the case of the SERMC, the organization is currently obtaining patents for its new tool through the Record of Invention process, while also providing the blueprints to the U.S. Navy’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC). According to SERMC, the tool costs just $30-40 to produce, and allows technicians to save almost five hours of repair time.

Meanwhile, the stories from the Marines and the other branches this week suggest how, no matter what part of the U.S. armed forces you shift your focus to, this same process is taking hold. In updates to its Force Design 2030 plan, published on Monday, June 5, 2023, the Marine Corps announced that it is considering forming a new job field dedicated entirely to operating intelligent robotics and autonomous systems. The updates were largely driven by lessons from the ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe. Even if the Marines don’t create a whole new specialty for the purpose, the service in any case plans to have robotics incorporated into its training centers by this September.

Similarly, a story in the Fayetteville Observer profiled a new unit that already formed, this past March, in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Called Gainey Company, the unit is comprised of three platoons and something called the Airborne Innovation Lab, which comprises just two soldiers, three civilian contractors, and manufacturing equipment including 3D printers. Gainey Company also emphasizes instruction in the latest tools for innovation, and, most notably, doesn’t restrict participation to any one occupational specialty: the goal is to get the new skills into as many hands as possible.

As the division’s senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. Randolph Delapena, told the Observer, “Soldiers want to make something to help the formations, and all those little things that they kind of work through, what they talk about in a barracks and in their company, that’s where you got to draw that energy from.”

Finally, that spirit was on display at the US Air Force’s Elgin Air Force Base in Florida on June 6, where, fascinatingly, the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing (SWW) held an event called “Shark Tank 2023”. (Government R&D funding has rapidly taken the form of a game show, and surprisingly, this seems to only be tangentially related to the fact that The Apprentice host was once the president.) Fourteen members from “all levels of the wing” each presented an idea to a panel of five experts, who will announce that one of the ideas has won funding later this month.

Said the 350th SWW’s command chief, David S. Southall, “Far too often, great ideas and innovations fail to make their way through the levels of bureaucracy in the Air Force before they reach a decision maker with the money, resources, and ability to say ‘yes’.” In the most surreally mundane way, the Pentagon is taking its cue directly from big business. It is listening to the average consumer, with the only unique flourish being that in this case, the average consumer is a member of the U.S. armed forces.

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