Mobile lab 3D-prints gear as needed in Afghanistan

The Army's new expeditionary lab develops and produces prototypes and other equipment on the spot.

The Army has joined the growing 3D printing movement, deploying mobile laboratories to Afghanistan equipped with prototyping and printing equipment that can create tools and other gear for soldiers on the spot.

The service’s Rapid Equipping Force delivered the first Expeditionary Lab - Mobile in July, as part of its effort to cut down the time it takes for innovations to reach the field, Military.com reported.  A second lab is expected to arrive in the fall.

The REF has been accelerating the delivery of equipment to the field for 10 years, but until now the process often depended on needs statements for new gear, a process that could take months. The new labs, made of 20-foot shipping containers equipped with lab gear, prototyping machines, 3D printers and other manufacturing tools, would be operated in the field and can greatly shorten the process, officials told Military.com.

Two engineers work in the lab and are connected via satellite to as many as 6,000 other engineers who can help in designing prototypes. 

REF Director Col. Peter Newell told Military.com that some of the best ideas for new gear come from soldiers in the field, but they’ve often had to wait until returning to the United States to present their ideas to engineers. Now, they can start and finish some projects on location.

The Army pointed out that mobile 3D prototyping and manufacturing labs also could prove to be valuable during domestic emergencies, such as hurricanes.

It’s another notch in the belt of a burgeoning technology that it being used for a variety of practical and, in some cases, seemingly fantastical purposes.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for decades, but of late has been making some giant leaps.

Generally, the process begins with a computer-aided design file which is separated into layers of thin, horizontal cross-sections. The printers — which can range from small, ink-jet-like models to large, industrial printers — apply the manufacturing material in layers that correspond to the design, often through a nozzle or die. The printers in the Army’s expeditionary lab, for instance, can print plastic as well as steel and aluminum.

The process has long been used for prototyping electronics and other small products, but has now grown to grander and sometimes odd scales. 3D printing has been used to produce guitars, jewelry, assault rifles and even cuts of meat.

Students at the University of Washington recently printed a small boat using a homemade 3D printer and melted down milk jugs. The process has already been used to produce drones and small planes, the first of which took flight a year ago, and Airbus wants to use it to build a full-size jetliner by 2050.

And a professor at the University of Southern California has developed a method that he says can 3D-print an entire house, including the plumbing and wiring, in 20 hours, a process that military and civilian agencies that work in the field might be keeping an eye on.

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