Advanced 3-D Printing Allows Marines Quick Material Production in the Field

QUANTICO, Va. — From a small plastic clip that keeps a snowshoe fastened to a multi-ton concrete replacement bridge and a wide range of items in between, Marines are using advanced manufacturing, commonly called 3-D printing, to produce in the field or in garrison rather than waiting days or weeks for the normal supply system to respond.

“We’re going hot and heavy” into advanced manufacturing, using materials from plastic to aluminum and other metals and even concrete, Capt. Matthew Friedell, the team leader on advanced manufacturing in the Rapid Sustainment Office at Marine Corps Systems Command said Feb. 7.

Systems Command has sent more than 100 3-D printers to Marine units, mostly small, desktop size instruments, but also a number of mid-size devices in 20-foot shipping containers and three huge machines at the Marine supply depots, Friedell told reporters in a telephone conference call from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Some of the printers, called tactical fabricating kits, are in the hands of infantry units, he said.

They also send training teams to help the field units learn how to use their new equipment and provide a support service that can develop the data required to produce the needed item and email it to the requesting unit, Friedell said.

Other crucial services the SysCom office provides are conducting tests of the material needed for the item to determine if it can be safely printed by the field unit, and studies of the original commercial source of the item to protect the company’s intellectual property rights, he said.

Industry has been very cooperative, but their data rights need to be protected, he said.

But most of the time, the request is for five to 10 small parts, for which there is no real profit interest for the producer. And often the needed item is no longer being produced due to the age of the equipment being repaired.

Items produced by Marines using 3-D printers cited by Friedell and other Marine officials include the snowshoe clip, a plastic buckle on a backpack, a compressor blade for an M-1 tank and a heavy concrete footbridge built by a Marine engineer unit in a test.
The long-term thrust for 3-D printing, Marine officials have said, is to greatly improve the ability of small combat units, well separated from senior commands and supply sources under the distributed forces concept, to sustain themselves by producing critically need parts.
Flexibility is another key contribution of the printers, Friedell said, noting that the prototype machine that produced the concrete bridge could also produce a security barrier or a shelter.
Electrical power is a crucial consideration, Friedell said, because the larger printers require huge amounts of power. Current tactical generators are able to provide the needed power and the services are developing hybrid power sources that combine high-efficiency generators with powerful batteries that can reduce the fuel demands of running the generators.