WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps is looking to additive manufacturing as a possible method to build spare parts rapidly in the field, which could reduce the heavy burden of a long logistics tail out to the tactical edge.
Taking less than a million dollars from the Pentagon — roughly $750,000 — the Marine Corps Systems Command and Marine Corps Installations and Logistics built a transportable 3-D printing lab prototype for maintenance units and teamed up with machinists from the 2nd Maintenance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to evaluate it in field environments over the summer.
The X-FAB — or expeditionary fabrication lab — is a 20-by-20 foot shelter that can be deployed at the battalion-level for maintenance units. It comes equipped with four 3-D printers, a scanner and computer-aided design software system to enable rapid parts manufacturing.
A machinist can scan a part and then run the scan through a software system that recreates the design of the part and then prints the part out in polymer material from a 3-D printer.
The X-FAB is considered a pilot effort to see if additive manufacturing makes sense for Marines and the environment in which they expect to operate in the future, Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, the Next Generation Logistics (NexLog) and NexLog Additive Manufacturing Lead Headquarters deputy director within the Marine Corps Installation and Logistics branch, told Defense News in a recent interview.
“The Marine Corps sees additive manufacturing as a capability that will do a couple of things for the future of the Marines Corps,” Marotto said. “One we see it flattening the supply chain.”
Traditionally the Marine Corps has been reliant on reachback to the United States and the “iron mountain” of spare parts in country, according to Marotto. “We really want to get away from that because it’s inefficient and expensive, but, more importantly, our adversaries in the future will be able to more aggressively attack these realms,” he said.
Long logistics tails are vulnerable, “but if you can distribute that and make it smaller it becomes less vulnerable,” Marotto said.
Additionally, the Marines are expected to spread out across wider areas of operations and won’t be able to operate with long supply chains. “Additive manufacturing is going to be key and the tool that allows those Marines to support themselves until the next resupply mission or, in some cases, maybe they need less resupply,” Marotto said.
Having fabrication labs downrange will also give Marines the opportunity to innovate in the field to solve specific problems they may encounter where traditional spares and repair parts may not meet the need, he added.
The possibilities for 3-D printing will only grow, Marotto said. For instance, new materials will be introduced for 3-D printing, particularly more rugged materials such as certain metals.
And being able to produce spares in the field quickly could drastically change how the service buys spares, perhaps asking for data in order to print parts rather than having a supplier produce all the spare parts far away from the battlefield.
3-D printing could even solve the parts obsolescence problem plaguing legacy systems. If the service had access to the designs, it could print key parts even if suppliers stopped producing a particular part.
The Marines decided to start with a prototype for a Shop Equipment, Machine Shop — or SEMS — which is a deployable shelter equipped with a milling machine and lathe, among other tools, so machinists in the field can rapidly repair vehicles, weapons or other equipment. The 3-D printing adds a complementary capability to intermediate-level maintenance shops already using SEMS, Ed Howell, the Marine Corps Systems Command Supply and Maintenance Systems program manager, said in the same interview.
Realizing the SEMS would be a good place to start adding 3-D printing capability to test its utility, the command put together a proposal within 24 hours and submitted it to the Defense Department for funding. It was approved to proceed in December, Howell said.
“Right out of the gate we were able to execute,” Howell said, finishing the prototype in late spring and moving into testing in July.
The prototype won’t undergo the full gamut of evaluations as a program-of-record would such as transportability testing including rail impact tests, but it will serve as a proof-of-principle.
“We just want to see, we are mainly looking at the viability of additive manufacturing for [SEMS],” Howell said.
The Marines testing the system are churning out parts, Howell said, but part of the challenge is learning to master relatively complicated 3-D printers. For example, additional training was needed to learn how to use the state-of-the-art printers.
The main questions the command hopes to answer from the evaluation are whether additive manufacturing a capability we should integrate in the SEMS and how the SEMS should look or be designed with 3-D printing capability, according to Howell.
“If we build this out as a program-of-record and build 29 of these to field across the Marine Corps to the SEMS workshop,” Howell said, “I think we will need to be building a reconfigurable tactical workshop. I think the printers change so quickly and become fairly obsolete, almost like lap tops.”
The command will issue a report either this month or in October with tangible results of the printing capability, according to Howell, and then the service will determine what’s next for the X-FAB and 3-D printing as a whole.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.