3D printing will revolutionize how the Marine Corps fights

Additive manufacturing goes to war.

"The people closest to the problem are also the people closest to the solution," Capt. Chris Wood, co-lead for Additive Manufacturing with the US Marine Corps, told Engadget. In 2016, the USMC put that adage to the test as it launched the Logistics Innovation Challenge, a program "to solicit ideas from Marines, sailors and civilians from across the Marine Corps" that would address challenges that they face in their daily duties. And this is only the start to the US Military's additive-manufacturing aspirations. Pretty soon, everything from ammunition to autonomous vehicles could come from the Corps' cadre of 3D printers.

Of the hundreds of submissions, only a handful managed to make the final cut and enter prototype development. Among them, 26-year-old Corp. Rhet McNeal's Scout, a fixed-wing UAS (unmanned aerial system) constructed almost entirely from 3D-printed components. Conventional Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) drones can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and operate, making commanders more reticent to use these devices in the field out of fear of breaking them.

Scout, on the other hand, costs only around $600 to build. It also fits in a standard-issue pack, can be broken down in a little over two minutes, and assembled and in the air within five minutes, McNeal told Engadget. And because its body and wings are 3D-printed, if the drone does take damage, troops can print a replacement part in a couple hours using in-field 3D printers rather than waiting days, weeks or even months for replacements to worm their way through the Marine Corps' supply lines.

"I don't see this as replacing our current supply chains, but I do see it as a great opportunity to augment existing capabilities," Lt. Col. Gregory Pace, battalion commander of the Marines 1st Maintenance Battalion, told the Marine Corps Times last year.

A prototype of the Scout UAS - Image: Autodesk

McNeal's team spent four months developing and perfecting Scout's design in collaboration with Autodesk at the company's Pier 9 additive-manufacturing facility in San Francisco. "The challenge was: How do you deliver an inexpensive, portable UAV for the average Marine to fly in field?" Autodesk's Paolo Salvagione, told Engadget. "How do you make it so that you can't put it together wrong? Which particular parts lend themselves to modularity, so in case something gets broken you can replace it quickly?"

"'Perfect' is often the enemy of a design," Salvagione continued. "And so when you're working on something like this UAV, the 80 percent solution gets him to an iteration really quickly." Had McNeal been using conventional prototyping techniques, the design process could have stretched on for many more weeks.

He would have had to construct, test, tweak and rebuild each iteration -- often with the input and oversight of experts in various fields of aeronautics. But with Autodesk's design program suite, "you embed that knowledge in a general way at the front end of a design as opposed to having to go through the whole design and send it off to someone else to analyze it and then tell you what's right or wrong," Salvagione said.

Scout has since been turned over to the Mitre Corp., a drone supplier for the USMC, for certification testing. Should Scout pass these trials, it could soon be put to work in Marine squads for short-range intelligence-gathering applications.

Of course, this isn't the first time that the USMC has experimented with 3D printing or even 3D-printed drones. In May, the Corps began field tests of Nibbler, a printed drone designed to serve a similar role as that of Scout.

"Our team is very enthusiastic about the Nibbler, but even more enthusiastic about what it represents for the future," Wood told Defense Systems. Wood envisions tiers of additive-manufacturing capabilities stretching from in-field systems, like the Army's RFAB, all the way back to the US, where heavier production, such as printing mission-critical components with metal and other advanced materials, would be done.

"Imagine being in a forward-deployed environment, and just like Amazon, you can 'order' the weapons and equipment you need for the next day's mission from an entire catalog of possible solutions," Wood continued. "These solutions can all be upgraded literally overnight in order to integrate new components or adapt to new requirements." Theoretically, with the right CAD files, a squad would be able to quickly customize and optimize its equipment for the specific mission requirements with little more than a desktop 3D printer and construction components.

Sgt. Kenneth R. Storvick monitors the progress of a 3D-printing job at Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina - image: DoD

Marines would be able to extract a "near infinite set of different UAS that we could produce from those basic elements," he concluded. What's more, tangential research is being conducted into recycling garbage, like MRE wrappers or discarded water bottles, and using that as the base material for printing.

Once this technology has been matured and scaled, the USMC stands to save a bunch of money on repair and maintenance. As the Marine Corps Times points out, bulkhead cracks in America's fleet of aging F-18 Hornet combat jets typically cost around $1 million and take six months of work to repair. Using 3D-printed aluminum replacement parts, however, drops the cost to just $25,000. Similarly, the Navy can now 3D-print hydraulic manifolds for the V-22 Osprey transport aircraft that weigh 70 percent less than their traditionally manufactured predecessors, and can be made 30 percent faster and 10 percent cheaper, to boot.

These benefits will soon reach civilian life as well. "If you can deliver raw material and make it into anything, all of a sudden it becomes really interesting to people who manage supply chains," Salvagione observed. "To sell a car in America means you have to stock 10 years' worth of parts for that car in a warehouse somewhere and pay for that storage." Instead, Salvagione argues that as many parts as can be 3D printed should be. "Then we can avoid paying the taxes on it for 10 years," he said. "And we still have it available when customers need it, maybe even longer than that 10-year cycle."

This future is still a little way off, mind you. The most popular example of 3D-printed military equipment these days is actually Humvee door handles, McNeal explained to Engadget. But the USMC is quickly expanding its printing capabilities into more-complex components including printed ammunition, though not yet the weapons with which to fire them. The Corps is also looking to print its new GPS-guided joint precision airdrop system (JPADS).

Overall, the Marine Corps is in the process of building out four full fabrication labs here in the US and has already sent 25 mobile production studios to units overseas for Marines, regardless of rank or occupation, to experiment with. "It is an exciting time and we are thrilled to be a part of it," Pace told the MCT. "You can't have innovation if you are beholden to systems that were created years ago."