“Our future operating environment is going to be very kinetic and dangerous because we don’t necessarily know what we’re going into… the more we can pull Marines out of those potentially dangerous situations—whether it’s active combat or natural disaster—and place robotics there instead, it helps us accomplish the mission more efficiently.” US Marine Captain Matthew Friedell of the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) articulates the promise of robots using additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing, for military operations. Friedell’s team, along with US Army personnel, printed a proof-of-concept barracks structure for use in combat zones in August 2018 known as “Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures” (ACES). While this construction is certainly promising, 3-D printing also has an untapped potential to solve logistics problems in austere environments that service members routinely experience during combat deployments. Currently, convoys often will take multiple spare parts for vehicles in case of break-downs. The promise of 3-D printing is that instead of bringing a supply of different spare parts, and attempting to forecast which will be needed during a mission, a maintainer could print the needed parts on demand, potentially reducing required storage space for spare parts, cost, and mission planning time.
Additive manufacturing has great promise for military operations largely on two factors: costs are a surmountable barrier when your budget is (relatively) unlimited, and the need for weight and space reduction is very real as front line units work towards greater independence from long supply trains. Many commanders complain that logistics often drive operations, when, in reality, it ought to be the other way around, and units are looking for ways to improve a soldier or marine’s lethality by lightening combat loads. In the short term, many US military offices are seeking to address this goal. Friedell’s team at the MCSC is only one of such; the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (USAERDC) also worked on the ACES project and has developed a 3-D printed grenade launcher, and the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division’s Disruptive Technologies Lab has worked with the Oak Ridge National Laboratories to develop a 3-D printed submarine hull. We are seeing the benefits of additive manufacturing already in operational units, where the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 was able to complete a successful flight of a F-35B Lightning II plane that had a replacement plastic bumper on its landing gear door which was fabricated by a 3-D printer.
The Way Forward
While projects like ACES are major steps forward, the military’s advances in additive manufacturing will likely be hampered by an organizational problem it has long struggled with – the siloing of its efforts within individual branches of the service. While “jointness” (the term used to describe coordinated lines of effort across two or more branches of the military) has increased drastically since the National Security Act of 1947 which federated the branches into one Department of Defense, efforts on research, development, and material acquisitions remain largely separate. In the short term, more joint projects like ACES between the MCSC and USAERDC will further additive manufacturing experimentation. In the medium term, maintenance regulations need to shift across branches to allow for innovation in logisitics like at the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121. Professional developmental courses ought to preach innovation to future commanders willing to take calculated and measured risks such as using 3-D printed parts during operations. The spirit of innovation ought to be ingrained parts of command philosophies, and senior commanders should push their junior leaders to come forward with new ideas and be willing to implement best practices. Long term, consolidation of the multitude of innovation offices within the branches may be a way forward. Some branches are already making moves in this direction, as shown by the recent creation of the US Army’s Futures Command, which will consolidate most of the Army’s innovation and acquisitions research, development, and testing missions.
While logistics and maintenance process improvement advantages are relatively straightforward, questions remain in product development. Can 3-D printing provide life-saving medical implants on the battlefield? Can ammunition be manufactured by a 3-D printer at a sustainable rate for austere outposts in Afghanistan, where supplies are delivered infrequently? What is the limit of reliability and risk commanders are willing to accept for critical parts such as a rotor blades or engine compressor fan blades? Can 3-D printing fill these gaps?
Additive manufacturing holds great potential for the US military and select offices within the branches are innovating with 3-D printing. As with all things new in the military, that potential will require unlocking through greater coordination, experimentation, and development across the branches to deliver logistics and maintenance process improvement (and potentially more) to our service members fighting on the front lines.
 and Banner Photo: United States Marine Corps, “MCSC Teams with Marines to Build World’s First Continuous 3-D Printed Concrete Barracks,” https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1611532/mcsc-teams-with-marines-to-build-worlds-first-continuous-3d-printed-concrete-ba/, accessed November 2018.
 3DPrint.com, “US Army Demonstrates Latest 3D Printing, 3D Scanning, Drone Technologies,” https://3dprint.com/210011/army-technology-demonstration/, accessed November 2018.
 Army Technology, “Made to Measure, the Next Generation of Military 3D Printing,” https://www.army-technology.com/features/made-measure-next-generation-military-3d-printing/, accessed November 2018.
 United States Marine Corps, “3-D Printer-Capable Marines with 31st MEU Print Replacement Part for F-35B,” https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1497871/3-d-printer-capable-marines-with-31st-meu-print-replacement-part-for-f-35b/, accessed November 2018.