3-D modeling artist Ryan Gilley displays products he designed and printed at the Rapid Technologies Branch, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. Soldiers can use similar technology downrange. (Army)
Science fiction is becoming science fact in Afghanistan, as troops are experimenting with 3-D printers, a Star Trek-like technology that fabricates whatever object is needed, on the spot — from replacement vehicle parts to entirely new objects.
"They bring in what they need on a napkin and come out with a prototype meant to solve their issue," said Lt. Col. Shannon Jackson, deputy program manager with the Rapid Equipping Force.
The Rapid Equipping Force is fielding two $2.8 million laboratories equipped with 3-D printers at forward operating bases in Regional Command-South and East, respectively. A third lab is under construction for deployment to a yet-unnamed combatant command.
Through the labs, scientists are available to collaborate with soldiers at remote outposts, and the 3-D printers let them create whatever parts or pieces soldiers may need on the fly.
"You're building an object from scratch, from thin air," said Bill Cohen, principal in the technology development arm of Exponent Inc., which provides support for the labs.
Here's what soldiers need to know:
1. What it is. The Expeditionary Lab-Mobile is housed in a 20,000-pound, 20-foot-long shipping container, and is deployed with jack-of-all-trades engineers and a variety of mechanical and electrical gear — "every power tool and hand tool you could want," Cohen said.
2. Who mans it. Like "Q" from James Bond, the engineers craft anything a soldier needs to make himself safer, more comfortable or more lethal, from search-team robots to mine-probe tools combat engineers use to pick the ground for improvised explosive devices.
The engineers may also take existing technology, alter its form for soldiers to try out, and alter it again. The timeline is trimmed from months to days.
3. How it works. Using 3-D modeling software, the engineers in Afghanistan can design whatever object the soldier asks for, or call upon stateside engineers via video teleconference for help.
Once an object is designed, engineers can use a Fused Deposition Modeling device that layers plastic material to build the object. The plastic is rigid, but the object may not last long, so it's usually only good for demonstrating a soldier's concept.
For more durable parts, the engineers use a Computer Numerical Control machining system. The CNC uses precise drill bits to carve a piece of aluminum into the final shape. It's a complicated process that can take more than 12 hours.
4. What it has done. Collaboration among soldiers has already been used to help develop technical solutions to battlefield problems. One was an adapter for a hand-held, ground-penetrating radar that connects to the longer-lived military-issue battery. Another was a small item that allowed soldiers to swivel their M249B machine guns on a bipod.
5. How you find it. Because they are in shipping containers, the labs are so nondescript a soldier may never know they're there. But REF officials want more soldiers to take advantage of the labs and suggest they contact their local REF office.
"The best opportunity for innovation is when we sit down with soldiers and they give us their ideas," said Ali Sanders of the Rapid Equipping Force. "They're the smartest when it comes to what they need because they don't have the option to fail."