Come next spring, U.S. forces in Afghanistan living on small combat outposts will have two mobile labs equipped with 3D printers, advanced plasma cutters, circular and jig saws, and a computer numerical control (CNC) machining system that can cut and shape metal objects, added to their arsenal.
The idea to push state-of-the-art engineering capabilities out to company-sized outposts in remote regions came from Col. Pete Newell, commander of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF).
Newell has at times been frustrated with the REF’s inability to dive down to the tactical level and get the perspective of the grunt on the ground, so in 2011 he pushed for the idea of the 20,000-pound Expeditionary Lab-Mobile, a shipping container stuffed with high-tech equipment that can mold and manufacture needed items in a matter of hours.
The first $2.8 million lab hit the ground in Regional Command-South in Afghanistan this May, and the REF will take delivery of the second lab by the end of November, said Wes Brin, the project officer for the lab at the REF’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va. A third lab is due some time in 2013, but it will likely remain stateside to assist in domestic contingencies, such as disaster relief operations.
The labs are designed to be sling-loadable under a CH-47 helicopter, and the first one has operated out of two separate forward operating bases since arriving in theater.
The 3D printer is perhaps the biggest innovation that the lab offers troops in remote locations. Capable of crafting molded plastic parts, Brin said two civilian contracted engineers manning the lab have printed out what he called “interrogation knives,” sturdy and durable 8- to 10-inch blades that allow soldiers to probe the ground for buried mines and command wires for IEDs. The lab churned out 10 knives in about 12 hours, he said. The printer has also kicked out inert IEDs for use in training, a task that became necessary “when the normal supply chain ran out of them, and the unit needed some training aids, so we printed out about five of these things in less [than] a week.”
Perhaps the biggest impact the lab has made for troops downrange, however, is what’s called the Power Hound, which allows a power cord to run from a battery to the handheld Mine Hound mine detector. Troops downrange were complaining that the IED finder was using up too much battery power, which forced them to carry lots of extra 2-pound batteries — something not appreciated by dismounted infantrymen.
Working with the scientists in the mobile lab, the soldiers came up with an adapter to help increase battery life. “By printing off 10 of those,” Brin said, “we were able to vet that on the ground and then JIEDDO [Joint IED Defeat Organization] went on to fund the purchase of 2,000 of them because it worked that well.” It took the lab three days to print 10 adapters “and then, within a month, we were able to go to JIEDDO, and now they’re going to make it part of the program of record for the Mine Hound system,” Brin added.
The two engineers who run the lab aren’t working in isolation. Since the CNC and 3D printer are connected to a global communications network, the lab itself can continue printing off projects sent from elsewhere. “It’s not about the two people in the lab,” Brin said, “and it’s not about what they design out of it. It’s really about the reach-back support. Due to our communications suite, they can reach out and talk to anybody in the world about any problem that they have, and they can design the solution and send it to one of those machines, as long as the power is on.”
With the next lab due to arrive in the spring, the REF is upgrading the 3D printer from a Fortus 250 to a Fortus 400, which will allow the lab to produce not only plastics, but also translucent plastics and polycarbonates.
“Once you get to a polycarbonate, that part is now durable and can be used for whatever you need,” Brin said.
There are still some space issues inside the lab that need to be worked out, “but just the sheer fact that it can do the polycarbonate really allows us to step up our game, and step up the projects that we can start doing.”