While on patrol, soldiers in Afghanistan realized they had a problem with their flashlights: A protruding power button was prone to being accidentally pressed, which at worst could give away their position at night. At any rate, their batteries were wearing down without their knowledge.
Ordinarily, the process to replace the flashlight would take months, if not years. The current design would have to be decommissioned, then the search for a new design would begin, resulting in a competition, testing, a contract award and finally a purchase and fielding.
Instead, engineers sitting in a shipping container in Afghanistan devised a solution in a matter of hours. Using 3D printers, scientists deployed with the Army Rapid Equipping Force’s Expeditionary Lab Mobile — ELM for short — produced a plastic guard that clips over the end of the flashlight, preventing accidental activation of the power switch.
While most 3D printing applications have been whimsical rather than practical — enthusiasts have made flutes, animal skeletons, prototypes for engine parts and action figures, among other kitschy items — the Army’s mobile lab is producing real-world objects that are saving lives in war zones.
The industry is maturing, and various manufacturing companies are daily discovering innovative uses for 3D printing technology.
President Obama has launched an initiative to establish “additive manufacturing” centers that will explore 3D printing with government funding. The effort was featured prominently in his 2013 State of the Union address.
“Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” Obama said.
The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute was formed “to accelerate additive manufacturing innovation by bridging that critical gap between basic research and mature development work,” the institute’s website says.
Already, the technology is being used in surprising — sometimes controversial — ways. Functional gun parts and ammunition magazines have been produced with small 3D printers that private citizens can own. There is no indication that the U.S. military plans to explore printing weapons. But NASA astronauts could one day eat 3D printed food in space, according to reports.
Oxford Performance Materials, producer of biomedical raw materials and devices, recently received FDA approval for a process to create artificial skull implants that can be tailored to a patient’s needs.
In combat zones, 3D printers are saving lives in other ways.
Westley Brin, a REF civilian product manager, said the technology has allowed troops to modify systems with proprietary designs to better fit their needs or make them more efficient in the field.
The Mine Hound, an improvised explosive device detection robot, came to the Army with a proprietary battery, requiring a soldier to carry specific power supplies for it. When the issue was noted, REF engineers at the mobile lab got to work designing a solution. Six hours later, they had a prototype and eventually were able to build 30.
“We put them out in the field and can get constant feedback,” Brin said. “In this case, we found out it almost doubled the battery life of the robot. Then we take that idea and kick it back home.”
The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization has approved funding for 2,000 refined Mine Hound battery adapters that are based on the REF mobile lab’s design.
The REF deployed the second mobile laboratory to the war zone in Afghanistan on Jan. 7.
A third ELM, scheduled for deployment in June, is specifically equipped for use in humanitarian and disaster-relief missions where logistics disruptions often prevent the rapid fielding of modified or innovative technologies.
Amidst a natural disaster, as in combat, troops regularly find themselves needing new or modified technologies to respond to emerging or unforeseen threats. The ELM system gives them an immediate opportunity to do so, provide feedback and perfect designs in real time.
The REF teamed with Applied Minds Inc. and Exponent, to develop the labs. At 20 feet long, the exterior resembles a metal shipping container and can be transported as such by truck or helicopter to just about any location.
Inside, each 10-ton, $2.8-million ELM is jam-packed with state of the art manufacturing and communications equipment including 3D printers, computer numerical control (CNC) mills and machines that use lasers and water to manufacture just about any small part on the spot within hours.
Manned by two specially trained engineers, each lab is a self-sufficient prototype production line in a box.
Engineers can work together inside each mobile lab to use 3D printers and CNC machining mills to create parts from plastic, steel or aluminum.
The 3D printers use rigid plastics that last for a month or two, but the items made with these materials are not meant to be permanent.
Using high-tech satellite communications, lab technicians can see and talk to other scientists and engineers, allowing them to compare notes with experts anywhere in the world. Once they arrive at a viable solution to the problem at hand, the part design can be instantaneously transmitted elsewhere in the world for full-scale manufacturing.
CNC mills use a drill bit to remove material from a solid aluminum or steel block. Metal milled parts are sturdier than 3D printed ones and can last indefinitely.
Mills were used when troops had trouble hitching a ground-penetrating radar array to their Husky route-clearance vehicles. The GPR aids in the detection of IEDs. Lab technicians were able to design and mill a part that successfully latched the GPR sled to the Husky and is now in production.
When Maj. Shannon McCrory was in Afghanistan, a private came to him with a problem: He and fellow soldiers had myriad electronic gadgets that required USB ports to charge but lacked any such jacks in their battlefield accommodations.
Mere hours later, McCrory’s laboratory had constructed a working prototype of a universal adapter for a standard Army battery that would accept the chord for the private’s laptop, iPod or anything that had a USB cable.
“Almost overnight, the [REF scientists] had made 100 of these things and sent them back out to the unit,” McCrory, chief of current operations for the REF, said. “Now there are thousands of them. That was just from some idea a private cooked up.”