PackBot with 3-D printed parts (U.S. Army photo by Erin Usawicz)

R-FAB kits let soldiers 3-D print replacement parts

When a military PackBot breaks a wheel or a specific tool is required to make a repair, soldiers in the field often face a long wait for replacement parts. Now, however, the Army is developing expeditionary kits that use 3-D printing so soldiers can make specialty tools, spare parts and other components while waiting for a replacement from the original equipment manufacturer.

Rapid Fabrication, also known as R-FAB, "allows rapid repair or soldier innovation at the point of need,” said Capt. Jeremy Pinson, additive manufacturing lead for the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command.

The R-FAB kits will come equipped with the necessary gear and software for the construction of any tools and parts, according to the Army. They will also have access to a database of design files, known as Raptor.

The Raptor software catalog is designed to facilitate the process of finding and printing the right part for soldiers in high-intensity situations. The user need not even know the exact part that needs replacement, according to Army Training and Doctrine Command. As long as the right system is chosen, the screen will display pictures of commonly broken parts to choose from. One click, and the part will begin printing.

"R-FAB allows soldiers and leaders to increase their readiness by making authorized replacement parts,” Pinson said. “For example, a robot tread could be printed. That tread may not be as good as an original equipment manufacturer part, but the part will get the soldier through the next mission,” he explained.

“Sometimes they have a hard time getting … parts fielded forward, so we are telling soldiers to make it, to get through the mission,” said James L. Zunino, materials engineer with the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center. “You know that you have a PackBot, and you can click on the PackBot picture … and it will bring up all the components you can print,” he explained.

Technological needs for soldiers in the field can be constantly evolving, and with a portable manufacturing kit and software, soldiers can construct new tools or tweak existing design plans, the Army said.

The R-FAB products are not intended to replace traditionally manufactured parts, Zunino said. Instead, they are intended to support missions and operations during the time between a part breaking and the arrival of the manufacturer's replacement.

The 3D printing technology is partially made up of commercial-off-the-shelf technology, and is meant for deployment as close to the point of need as possible, according to the Army. It will also be available to some maintenance units.

Filling the gap until spare parts are delivered will greatly increase the operational tempo of the warfighter," Zunino said.

This article was first posted to Connected Warrior, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Katherine Owens is a freelance reporter for Defense Systems

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