'Quick! The chief needs a new axle for the jeep'

'Quick! The chief needs a new axle for the jeep'

Even the most mobile military unit can be slowed by vehicle breakdowns, especially if supply lines for spare parts are sluggish.

To keep forces agile in future battle campaigns, the Army has devised a system to repair trucks and lightweight combat vehicles in the field by producing spare parts in a matter of hours. The key is manufacturing the parts on the spot, rather than ordering them.

The Army unveiled its computerized Mobile Parts Hospital earlier this year at a military simulation training conference in Orlando, Fla.

The unit can manufacture small parts on demand for a wide range of vehicles. Specifications are sent and received via satellite by the unit, which uses the digital data to turn out the parts. If satellite communications are severed, data can also be transmitted via cellular-phone modem.

Engineers at the Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich., began the project in June last year and produced the first prototype at a cost of $3 million. 'This is very much a research and development effort,' said Coryne Forest, program manager for the project.

The parts hospital is a self-contained, mobile manufacturing center housed in a tractor trailer, Forest said.

One of its unique features is that it can reverse-engineer individual repair parts with a scanning device and simulation hardware. A server links it with the Detroit contractor, Focus: Hope, that supplies the parts data and rapid machining methods.

Focus: Hope is a human rights organization whose Detroit chapter includes the organization's Center for Advanced Technologies, a manufacturing training facility.

The Institute of Textile Technology in Warren, Mich., provides systems integration, parts selection and validation, as well as fabrication technologies.

Forest said one person could run the unit, but the Army will likely use three, including a machinist.

The mobile part plant is stocked with a standard milling machine with drills, rotating tools and a modified lathe. Using a Dell Corp. PC to control a fabrication machine, it rolls out a layer of powder, which is subjected to a laser light that etches a part's outline. The unit can draw on an inventory of 11 plastics, ceramics, rubber and metallic powders.

Work during battle conditions would be done several miles from the fighting, Forest said.

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