Printing the future: MWSS-372 successfully tests 3-D printing in a field environment

Printing the future: MWSS-372 successfully tests 3-D printing in a field environment

U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mathew Wright, a motor transportation maintenance officer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 372, conducts maintenance on an Invent3D printer during a 3-D printer integration exercise at site 50 training area, Wellton, Arizona, Oct. 18, 2016. Wright used the additive manufacturing equipment to make objects from 3-D model data throughout Weapons Tactics Instructors course 1-17. Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One cadre host WTI which emphasizes operational integration of the six functions of Marine Corps aviation in support of a Marine Air Ground Task Force. MAWTS-1 provides standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics. Photo by LCpl Andrew Huff.

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz.  (October 24, 2016) — A Humvee door handle might not seem like the start of a new era in the Marine Corps, but the Marines of MWSS-327 believe that this small piece of plastic is exactly that. Embracing Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller's recent push for Marines to innovate, MWSS-372 is one of the first units to experiment with 3-D printing.

Formally, 3-D printing was known as additive manufacturing (AM), and is the process of joining materials, layer by layer, to construct an object. Usually, manufacturing a part involves milling an object out of a larger, solid piece of material or by pouring liquid material into a preformed mold and waiting for it to solidify. 

Recently, Neller published an interim policy on additive manufacturing in the Marine Corps, the entirety of which is in Marine Administrative Message 489/16. In it, he imposes safety protocols for specific situations, such as requiring that a printed part will be used on a configuration controlled system be rendered in a bright color to distinguish it from the original equipment it is used with. However, the Maradmin is also a call for all Marines to explore the potential benefits of 3-D printing; the Marines of MWSS-372 have eagerly answered.

Capt. Marc Blair, combat engineer officer, MWSS-372, spearheaded the project, after he was inspired by what he observed at the Marine Corps System Command Roadshow. There, he attended a presentation on additive manufacturing in relation to the Maradmin that had been published in mid-September 2016. According to Blair, it was purely "by chance, since we were there to look at engineer equipment," not to learn about 3-D printing.

An engineer officer himself, Blair realized that his own unit would be perfect to test out what a 3-D printer could do in the hands of Marines, as there are 72 occupational fields within MWSS-372, all of which may be able to find a way to use the 3-D printer within their area of expertise. After some research and discussion with subject matter experts at the Pentagon, Blair coordinated funding through Installations and Logistics' Next Log Innovation Cell and procured a 3-D printer for MWSS-372.  

"I'm nerdy, so to me this is pretty awesome," Blair said. "Imagine what the battlefield could be like in fifteen years [with this new capability.]" 

The printer uses a single extrusion head and spool of PLA filament, i.e. black plastic tubing, which feeds into the printer head where it is heated to about 220 degrees Celsius, making it pliable enough to print into the desired object.

"[The printer itself is] a really basic model. It's actually meant for K-12 students in order to get the basics of 3-D printing down," says Capt Kristina Warren, motor transport company commander, MWSS-372. "There are a lot of limitations because of it, but it's a great opportunity to test the capability in the Marine Corps because it's a lot cheaper."  

She added that this printer allows Marines to get used to the idea of 3-D printing, and get some good test products out before the Marine Corps decides if it wants to spend more money. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Wright, motor transport maintenance officer, MWSS-372, points out that they chose this particular printer because it was the only one available through GSA, and they had to do an open purchase to obtain the filament spool.  

Of the entire process, keeping the printer on a level surface so that gravity does not interfere with the printing and cooling of the object is the most difficult part. In fact, the Marines most closely involved in this experiment were surprised that the technology involved was so simple to use.  

"It took us almost three hours to put it together initially, mostly due to an abundance of caution and lack of familiarity," said Warren. "However, once you do it, it's super easy to remember how to do it." 

Now that the Marines are familiar with it she is confident that they could put it together in less than an hour. There was no training on how to assemble the printer, merely puzzling over the pictures in the instruction manual and about ten minutes of watching troubleshooting videos on YouTube.  

According to Wright, he "jumped at the chance" to get involved with the project because it's "interesting" and "fun." He starting training himself on how to create a virtual model of objects that they might want to print. He watched a few instructional YouTube videos and familiarized himself with Tinkercad.com, a program readily available for free online that was recommended in the printer's instruction manual. Wright estimates that he spent only a few hours figuring out how to create a virtual model.  

"All the information is available online, so long as you are willing to put the time into reading it," he explained.

No previous computer programming experience is needed, which means that more Marines in the general population of the Corps should be able to use this technology themselves as no formal school will be needed, Wright explained. Still, he thinks that it would be beneficial to have some sort of formal training, although he believes anyone would be able to use the Tinkercad program and this particular printer. 

After he became confident that he could successfully draw a virtual model of whatever plastic piece of equipment was desired, Wright just needed to decide what to print first. Those involved agreed upon a Humvee door handle; after all, this presented a perfect opportunity for a real world test for the printer. According to Warren, door handles get snapped surprisingly often and "the main thing we're looking for in an expeditionary environment is to use [the printer] for maintenance purposes." They were already out in a desert range in support of Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course (WTI) 1-17, and if this was an actual deployment this particular scenario was likely to occur. Why not see if the 3-D printer could solve a problem they were likely to face on their upcoming deployment?

They measured a Humvee door handle by hand, and Wright entered the data into the Tinkercad program. He chose to use a honeycomb pattern to fill the inside of the handle, as he was of the opinion that would keep the handle "strong and lightweight" without "wasting a lot of product trying to make the handle." Wright then transferred that virtual model into a second program which translates the virtual model into the specific commands that tell the printer what to print, and how to make it.

The advantage of this two-step process is that it means that one virtual model master file can be translated into the specific language to any make and model of printer that is being used. Instead of Marines having to write a different files for each type of printer they might use, the Marine Corps could have one standard file used across the Corps, and merely translate it into commands according to whatever printer is on hand. If one unit develops and tests a successful part on their printer, that design can be sent to other units to begin using immediately with their printers, instead of other units having to design it themselves, says Blair.  

Time can seem like a barrier to widely adopting this technology; after all, the printer required about 45 minutes to print just one door handle. However, Warren disagrees that time is a penalty mark against additive manufacturing. 

"Being able to quick print a part instead of having to wait for the field supply system could give us some huge capabilities in the long run," Warren said. ?Wright agreed, stating that MWSS-372 will not have to wait on the supply system in the event that they need a part that is non-safety related, so they won't have to wait a month to get a part. The speed and expedient nature of 3-D printing parts would be a "big plus while we are out in the field," he added.  

"By design, maintenance is unpredictable. By having something where you can customize and print a part instead of having to attempt to predict what is going to break would be huge," Warren said. "While this printer only prints plastic, there are 3-D printers that print metal, and when combined with 3-D scanners, Marines could potentially scan a part and print it right there, instead of waiting for a part to make its way to the field. Additionally, the printer is super compact, super mobile, and good for a field environment, its use isn't limited by a dusty environment and you can set it up anywhere."

There will be, especially in the near future, a delicate balancing act between durability, safety, usability and time considerations. Warren admitted, her biggest concern is testing the long term durability of any part.  

"The filament that we have right now is technically biodegradable, so I definitely worry about long term durability, but short term durability, its hard plastic and incredibly durable," Warren said.

While they cannot use any parts for safety related equipment yet, Warren speculates that these parts could be used as a stop-gap in the field while waiting for a factory-made part to arrive. Networking with other units who have 3-D printers and sharing results will also help refine the process, as pooling knowledge together will help identify what works and what does not with 3-D printing across the Corps.

After seeing the successful replacement of the door handle, MWSS-372 Marines want to do more. Many of them are quick to voice their opinions about how pleased they are with the results of this first, of hopefully many, practical applications of additive manufacturing.

Would they want to use the printer out in the field while on deployment? Absolutely.  

Warren says they are looking into ways to use the 3-D printer outside of maintenance in the field. Wright proposes building a terrain model, "so when we get out into an environment you could 3-D print the buildings that you might be entering." Warren notes that the parts they print using this particular plastic filament will be very resilient for where they will be operating out in the field, and both she and Wright are positive that Marines could use 3-D printers for many different applications.  ?All the Marines agree that MWSS-372 would love to be the first Marine unit to 3-D print on deployment, although Wright adds that the results would be even better if they could take along a 3-D scanner. Warren notes that right now they have to measure the part they want to replicate themselves, and input everything by hand into the program.

"If we had a scanner it would be amazing," Warren said. "Being able to scan something into a program and then print from that image would definitely speed up the process and make more accurate parts." 

This group also hopes that if they can prove the utility of 3-D printing in the field, they will be able to procure a printer that has the capability to render objects in other materials, such as metal or rubber. The Marines point out that everything that can break, will break in the field; they would like they opportunity to show that they can print and repair in the field too. Wright would "absolutely" like to take more advanced printers capable of printing in other materials, such as metal, into the field.  

"If we could print other types of materials and scan items in as opposed to building them via the Tinkercad program, that would be a huge benefit," Wright said. "There are printers capable of printer a whole bicycle. This is something that is definitely part of the future, and is something that will be around to stay."

It doesn't take much to imagine what 3-D printing could do for the Corps as a whole. In April, the story of Marines from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, who went to a museum to retrieve a part needed to get one of their older F/A-18 Hornets back in the air, went viral. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, even testified about the story to the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. What if Marines were able to scan jet parts that are no longer available and print them on their own? In fact, General Electric Aviation announced that in 2016 it will introduce the first 3-D printed parts in an aircraft engine platform, which it expects will be both lighter in weight and of higher durability than conventionally manufactured parts. The idea of 3-D printed parts used in Corps aircraft is not terribly far-fetched, in light of this announcement. While he has reservations about putting 3-D printed items in aircraft, Wright does agree that for items that are no longer available through the supply system, it would be a great way to remanufacture those, instead of waiting for someone else to make those parts and send them.

True, there are plenty of concerns that must be addressed, including durability, safety, and cost-effectiveness of 3-D printed parts. But there are also legal considerations to be made, such as whether warranties on expensive equipment would be voided if a part is replaced with a 3-D printed piece, or if intellectual property rights of the original manufacturers would be infringed upon if Marines create virtual model of those parts. Still, Warren is cautiously optimistic that these obstacles can be successfully overcome, and states that it would be wonderful to work with the manufacturers, to get the actual specifications from them and work with them on creating a process for printing their parts in the field. Wright is content to let others determine the legalities of 3-D printing; "If they tell me what I can print, I'll print it," he added.

The MWSS-372 Marines instead focus their attention on the success they have achieved with this one piece of technology in their hands, and turn their thoughts towards what may happen in the future of 3-D printing in the Corps.  

"Instead of us being on the back end of technology, and waiting for the commercial side to develop things, us having integration with emerging technologies is the way for us to go as the Marine Corps," Blair said. "We aren't always going to get it 100 percent right, but at least we are sticking ourselves out there and finding which path is going to lead to success." 

What do MWSS-372 Marines think can be achieved via 3-D printing? Wright asks, "What can you imagine?"

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