Army Deploying $2.8M Mobile 3D Printing LabsFeb 28
3D PRINTING ON THE FRONTLINES – ARMY DEPLOYING $2.8M MOBILE FABRICATION LABS
By David J. Hill
February 28, 2013
Throughout history, war and innovation have gone hand in hand, whether it’s breakthroughs out of heavily funded R&D programs or makeshift contraptions thrown together with spare parts. Soldiers are trained to use the technology on hand to get the job done, one way or the other.
But how would military operations change if soldiers on the battlefield could have the best of both worlds: access to expert engineers able to fabricate custom-designed fixes right on-the-spot and in very little time?
The ability to rapidly evolve solutions from conception to implementation has become a reality with the Expeditionary Lab Mobile (ELM). The 20-foot container comes equipped with 3D printers, computer-assisted milling machines, and laser, plasma, and water cutters, along with common tools like saws and welding gear. Parts can be made of plastic, steel, and aluminum.
With a generator, heating and cooling systems, and satellite communications all manned by two specially trained engineers, the 10-ton ELM is effectively a digital fabrication workshop in a box.
When an ELM is on site, soldiers can dialogue with engineers about solutions to a particular problem and discuss potential designs. Through this collaborative process, the engineers can fabricate the parts so that soldiers can immediately test the designs and provide valuable feedback.
One example of how the ELM proved useful involved a flashlight with a raised power button that could accidentally be turned on, which could give away a position or just cause the batteries to wear down. The problem was fixed by fabricating a clip-on guard over the end of the flashlight, avoiding what would have been a lengthy procedure to decommission and replace the flashlight.
Part of the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) of the U.S. Army, two of the $2.8M labs have already been deployed via Chinook helicopters to undisclosed locations in Afghanistan, and a third is scheduled to be available for use this June.
Col. Peter Newell, the director of the REF, oversaw the conversion of stationary prototyping labs located in Afghanistan into the mobile versions using shipping containers. He described the need for the ELMs, as reported by Military News last August: “The soldiers out there, they know how to do stuff; they know how to fix stuff and they know what they need to be able to do, but what they don’t have is the technical expertise in many cases to do it themselves.”
The labs were produced as part of a three-year $9.7 million contract with Exponent Inc., a large engineering consulting firm.
The fabricated parts produced in the lab are definitely meant for short-term use, but the potential for them to serve as prototypes for future innovations is vital. Furthermore, the strategy is a huge aid to logistics, as the labs can operate independently, with restocking of materials and equipment maintenance potentially coinciding with personnel shifts that occur every four months.
The vision for the ELM is to be “the platform for the future of the Rapid Equipping Force,” according to Newell.
Plans for the ELM extend past 2014, when troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan, and beyond the battlefield, as the REF considered other possible uses. Natural disasters and humanitarian efforts are often impaired by logistical problems that cannot meet the urgent need for parts. ELMs could serve key roles in any coordinated response that draws on the REF, taking hours to produce what might have taken weeks or months to generate in addition to allowing someone on the field to teleconference with military and commercial experts around the world.
It’s exciting to see 3D printing used in potentially life-saving capacities. While some commercial uses of the technology have sporadically popped up in various venues around the world, this is one of the first applications that goes beyond merely the convenience or coolness of 3D printing and delivers something that just feels 21st century. That’s probably why the analogy has been drawn between these labs and the famous replicators from the Star Trek series.
For soldiers frustrated by the perceptions versus the realities of the battlefield, the ELMs should bring a sigh of relief. Having a mobile lab on site means no more waiting for weeks to solve a mission-threatening problem, even if it’s as minor as a flashlight power switch.
From the look of things, 3D printing will be right at home in the battlefields of the future.
MOBILE LABS BUILD ON-THE-SPOT COMBAT SOLUTIONS
By Matthew Cox
August 17, 2012
For the first time, the Army is deploying special scientists and self-contained, mobile laboratories to the warzone capable of designing and producing problem-solving inventions for soldiers operating in remote outposts in Afghanistan.
The service’s Rapid Equipping Force, known as the REF, took a standard 20-foot shipping container and packed it with high-tech, prototyping machines, lab gear and manufacturing tools to create the Expeditionary Lab — Mobile.
Soldiers no longer have to wait to bring ideas back to scientists and engineers back in the states. The REF has brought the experts to the soldiers in combat.
These mobile labs represent the REF’s future as its director, Col. Peter Newell, wanted to figure out a way to help the Army’s quickest, most agile acquisition arm deliver equipment to soldiers even faster. Stood up in 2002, the REF has delivered life-saving pieces of combat gear such as the Raven drone and the Pilar acoustic sensor system that detects incoming bullets.
REF leaders deployed the first mobile labs to Afghanistan’s RC-South in July. Each one is designed to bring innovation to the source of the problem, cutting months off of the traditional rapid-fielding process.
“The soldiers out there, they know how to do stuff; they know how to fix stuff and they know what they need to be able to do, but what they don’t have is the technical expertise in many cases to do it themselves,” said Col. Pete Newell, commander of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force at Fort Belvoir, Va.
In the past, soldiers have relied heavily on Operational Needs Statements to describe a problem to Army developers who then create or purchase a piece of gear to serve as a solution.
Sometimes, the original idea can get lost in the process, Newell said.
“It’s really difficult to connect the guy who is building the product to the kid who really needed it to begin with, so what we went after is to connect the scientist to the soldier,” he said. “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”
The plan is to deploy a second expeditionary lab to RC East this fall. A third will remain stateside for contingencies such as natural-disaster support.
The labs cost about $2.8 million each and include state-of-the-art equipment such as a Rapid Prototyping 3D Printer, a machine that can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. There’s also a similar device known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system for producing parts and components from steel and aluminum.
“This is cutting-edge technology that allows you to actually print parts and pieces to things,” Newell said. “They are not really inventing something new; they are modifying something that exists already so they can do something else.”
The Army has had this equipment for some time in stationary labs in Kandahar and Bagram Air Base. Engineers used it recently to improve the battery performance of the Minehound, a hand-held ground-penetrating radar device used to detect buried improvised explosive devices, Newell said.
The extreme heat in Afghanistan quickly eroded the eight-hour battery life of these devices down to 45 minutes, a problem that loaded down dismounted soldiers with the weight of extra batteries for multi-day missions.
Engineers created a special adaptor and power cable for a standard military-issue BA5590 battery, which now powers the Minehound for up to nine hours. The fix also allowed soldiers to take the battery off the device and wear it on their body for better weight distribution and reduced arm fatigue, Newell said.
The first prototypes were created in May and the production quality adaptors were on the ground by late July — not fast enough said Newell.
“I had lab guys flying around the battlefield and talking to soldiers and it could be weeks before they get back around to them again, so it is really hard to be … at the point of the spear and helping the guy while he has a problem rather than showing up too late,” Newell said. “So we decided it was time to get our labs back out further forward on the battlefield.”
In September 2011, the Army awarded a $9.7 million contract to a large engineering company known as Exponent Inc., for three year’s worth of expeditionary lab support.
REF officials then worked with Exponent engineers to develop and build these custom labs. They are equipped with their own generator and heating and cooling system.
In addition to the high-tech prototyping equipment, the labs include portable equipment carts filled with tools such as plasma cutters for precision metal cutting, welders, magnetic mounted drill-presses, electric hacksaws, routers, circular saws and jig saws.
The labs also include satellite communications equipment for conducting video teleconferences with REF officials and engineers in the states.
“The scientists working in that lab can have the sergeant sitting next to them working on a problem connected in VTC real-time with us here, the main lab someplace else, and a commercial vendor someplace else,” Newell said.
But the equipment wouldn’t be worth much without the specialized engineers that deploy with the labs, he said. Typically, each lab is manned by two engineers, one senior and one that’s a bit greener with fresh ideas. They are replaced about every four months to keep a new perspective in the lab, Newell said.
But the two lab engineers are far from alone.
“When the Exponent guy in my lab has a problem, and doesn’t have the expertise to come up with a solution, he types that up and opens up a VTC that … opens him up with a portal with 6,000 other engineers in Exponent,” who help solve the problem, Newell said.
Once in theater, these expeditionary labs can be transported by truck or airlifted by helicopter to wherever they are needed, Newell said.
These labs don’t just fill a battlefield role, they can also be deployed to solve problems on the ground during natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. Newell says the REF plans to use these labs well past 2014, when soldiers leave Afghanistan.
“This is really the platform for the future of the Rapid Equipping Force,” Newell said.