In our last article on the GovDesignHub, we sat down with Capt. Matthew Audette, a project officer at the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell (AMOC), which the organization within the Marine Corps working to identify ways in which advanced manufacturing (AM) technology and techniques can help make the creation and maintenance of tools, vehicles, and equipment better and easier for the Marine Corps.
During our discussion with Capt. Audette we talked about the AMOC’s responsibilities, what it does for Marines, and how a recent tool they created to remove the steering wheels of Marine Corps vehicles is making life easier for Marines.
In the second part of our discussion, we asked Capt. Audette about other use cases for AM across the Marine Corps and military, discussed how AM could change the way in which the military manufactures and maintains things into the future, and deliberated on the roadblocks keeping the Marine Corps from further expanding its use of AM.
Here is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): We previously discussed the steering wheel removal device that is being made with advanced manufacturing techniques by the Marine Corp. I would assume tools like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to additive manufacturing use cases for the military. What other products, tools, and solutions could you see being made with additive manufacturing in the future?
Capt. Matthew Audette: Oh, absolutely. We have yet to find the bottom of this rabbit hole. We have too many great cases to list them all. Tooling jigs is a big one, and our approval pipeline is designed for them to get a “yes” solution. The amount of man-hours and materials you can save on those alone is immense.
For things like training aids, we can do some cool stuff. One use case that still I want to get after was brought to us by a fleet unit. A lot of the load you carry in combat is ammunition. It’s heavy, and you absolutely need to train to that load and how to carry it. But in cases where you’re training on non-live fire ranges, it just doesn’t make sense to bring out live ammo just to risk damaging it and turn it back in. Most places just won’t allow it for common sense safety reasons.
But if you could use advanced manufacturing to make a weighted version, or use AM to facilitate making a mold to dump things like concrete or resin in to, now you can safely train to carry the ten pounds of 40mm grenades, and figure out how to carry these rockets in a comfortable way. Other great use cases have come from our Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) field – stuff like identification aides are common sense, but I’ve seen them come up with new devices and mechanisms to test each other out on things that are brand new and unknown.
For repair parts there’s a lot of low hanging fruit – plastic parts that get fixed with duct tape are quick and easy to rectify. A lot of the higher-end metal parts that affect readiness reports are still works in progress.
And some of our best use cases come from novel solutions – things where there are no corresponding NATO Item Identification Numbers (NIIN), no part you’re repairing, just a whole new solution. One great example involves a radio mic button cover designed by Lance Cpl. Frederick Sattler. On some of our radio handsets there’s a rubber button cover that sticks out from the hand mic so it catches things and wears out. When that rubber cover is not there and you push the button to talk, you get a small shock.
“We aren’t a factory and we don’t want to be a factory. We simply want to fix our stuff now…” – Capt. Matthew Audette
Traditionally, the fix was to get a whole new mic. Lance Cpl. Sattler designed a brand-new part that protects the button and prevents it from breaking in the first place.
There are other cases where there’s no corresponding NIIN because you have to buy the assembled item. If the only part of this rearview mirror that’s missing is this spacer, why do I have to buy a whole new mirror, mounting bracket, and hardware? It’s more efficient and cost effective if I can just print that one part.
GDH: Much like with this steering wheel removal tool, most of the use cases that we hear about for additive manufacturing involve creating a few, specialty items that either don’t exist already or replacing a handful of parts that would be too expensive to reproduce. Do you see a future where the military is mass manufacturing tools and other solutions through additive manufacturing?
Capt. Matthew Audette: For mass manufacturing, I don’t see us doing that. We aren’t a factory and we don’t want to be a factory. We simply want to fix our stuff now, do so in austere environments, and find a way to produce something locally instead of shipping a part all the way from the US.
Our supply chain is a modern miracle. I’m not interested in scrapping it. I want to fix those edge case points where it doesn’t work. I also want to add resilience to it.
“AM gives industry that quick turn response while traditional manufacturing pivots and brings that mass to bear.” – Capt. Matthew Audette
Firstly, we intend to go places where there is not a supply chain – small, austere islands in remote places. What do I do then? I’m still going to need my parts, and that supply chain is a liability- it’s vulnerable to attack and it points right to where I’m hiding.
Secondly, we’ve seen how vulnerable a supply chain is. Maybe it makes sense to injection mold all these parts for an initial run, but what if years later I need an alternate source for only dozens? What if there’s an emergency and I need parts now while industry re-tools for a mass volume production run? AM gives industry that quick turn response while traditional manufacturing pivots and brings that mass to bear.
GDH: Could you envision additive manufacturing being used to bring outside-of-the-box, generative designs to life?
Capt. Matthew Audette: For outside of the box, generative designs, yes. As an expeditionary force, light weighting is big for us. We have an internal problem to overcome before we get into that, though. To topologically optimize a part requires good data on what loads and forces a part is subjected to. For a lot of our parts, we just don’t have that right now.
We test our vehicles as entire systems. I can’t tell you at what loads this particular bracket will break, I can tell you that if I drive the whole truck over our evaluation course that the bracket won’t break. The services did this for a reason – that data is expensive and we didn’t really need it in the past. In some cases we don’t need it now. And generating that data is work, which costs money.
But, you know who might have that data, or something similar? The original manufacturer. We talk a lot about buying the CAD models of our gear to fabricate parts. In a lot of cases, it’s not very useful. I’m going to have to change the geometry of that model to facilitate the new manufacturing method of a material swap or to lightweight a part. I want the specs they designed that bracket to. That information, not the CAD model, will allow us to leverage AM’s advantages to the fullest.
And to take it one step further, I don’t want the Marine Corps to do this work in every case – I want the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to do it on the front end for our new programs. Where we are retrofitting existing programs, I want us to partner with them on research agreements. They’ve got an interest in making their platforms better so we keep using them and we have an interest in having modern gear with designs that are responsive to today’s needs. We need to continue working together.
Beyond individual repair parts, I want to have whole systems that are designed from the ground up using advanced manufacturing – entire platforms. The Marine Corps is experimenting with printed ship-to-shore connectors; boats that can carry two 20 foot ISO containers. Ship-to-shore connectors are critical to an amphibious force, so that makes them high-priority targets. We need the ability to make them cheap, expendable and risk-worthy. We also need the ability to make a lot of them at or near the point of need.
These printed boats have the advantage of being made in days or weeks versus months or years. I don’t have to have a plan to maintain them for 30 years because they might not be relevant inside of ten years, and they might not even survive two missions. If I need more, I can find anyone who owns this type of large-scale printer and say to them, “I need ship-to-shore connectors now, so I’m paying you to be a boat basin.” That’s a big deal.
GDH: What roadblocks or technological challenges may exist that would keep that from happening? What advancements are coming down the road that could help additive manufacturing become more mainstream in the military?
Capt. Matthew Audette: There are problems we have to sort out in-house and then there’s things that, quite frankly, need to be solved by industry and academia and the professional societies that set standards.
One thing we are working on that’s something I’m excited for is our Digital Class IX Block. When we go out, we drag with us a physical stock of repair parts called a Class IX Block. That container can hold only a finite amount of space and weight, and for an expeditionary force space and weight are a zero-sum game. If I can take all of those edge case parts and swap that space and weight for general-purpose feedstock for a general-purpose machine that can be operated by a general-purpose Marine, and then load up a hard drive with all the technical data to produce those parts, now we’re talking.
That Digital Class IX Block needs the ability to go on to our repository, load up a shopping cart of sorts for all the tech data for the gear we are taking with us and pull it down so we can use it in an offline environment. The data we load up needs to be easy to sort through to find what we need. And when we get back to network connectivity, it needs to automatically push any new data generated in the field and pull any updates to parts we took with. On top of all that, this Digital Class IX Block fits in nicely to the Marine Corps concept of “modern battlefield foraging.”
The Marines will have 3D printers at all echelons, but so will the Navy, host nations and allied militaries. If I’m in the Pacific and I need parts for my Amphibious Combat Vehicle, I can’t buy those in Manilla. However, I guarantee you I’ll find someone with a 3D printer. This Digital Class IX Block needs to be able to securely interface with a non-USMC machine, ensure that the parts I get from this machine are quality, feed my data to the machine, and make sure that when I leave my data is not left behind. That’s a tall order, but we are working on it chunks at a time.
GDH: What about culture and training – are there any changes needed there? Any other changes that can accelerate AM adoption?
Capt. Matthew Audette: Another thing that we are working on in-house is integrating AM into our training infrastructure. Our Commandant has identified modernizing our training methodologies as a high priority and we are doing just that with AM and rapid prototyping.
We’ve trained a little north of 4,000 Marines on AM from all jobs and units across the Marine Corps. I need the ability to track those Marines in our typical training systems. We also need to formalize our training curriculum and fold it into the structure that other training curriculums fall in on.
What complicates it is that we will keep AM training open to every job in the form of incidental operators, but we intend for our machinist community to be the ones to formally train-the-trainers that man the local training centers we have in each Marine Expeditionary Force.
The Marine Corps is also working out things like cataloging. If I have an AM part and an OEM part, they need to be classified in our system differently. I also have use cases where an AM part can be a “limp-home” solution that doesn’t need to last for 5,000 hours or 500 hours. It might need to only last 50. How to a catalog a limp-home AM part, an as-good-as-OEM part, and an OEM part so there aren’t counterfeit parts in our system? We are working on that. In the meantime, we are not saying to the Marines “hold up on printing these until we sort this out.”
We are also coming up with ways to enforce a “royalty” type model for printing parts. If an OEM will sell us access to their technical data, we are willing to pay an OEM a fee for each time we print one of their parts. It’s better to have the OEM data than us to reverse engineer everything under the sun. But I only want to pay you for what I print, and I know the OEMs are interested in being paid for their IP. We are working on the technical means to enforce this ability, and once we do so I believe we will be able to get more OEM technical data for a better cost to the taxpayers.
GDH: How can industry help make AM adoption more widespread in the Marine Corps
Capt. Matthew Audette: Where we need help from industry is standards for qualification and certification of machines, materials, and parts. This one isn’t going to come purely from the military, and we need to be on the same page as industry. We need those standards and processes that industry uses for traditional manufacturing to be built out for all the AM processes.
Since AM is new, we ask a lot of questions that are no longer asked of cast, milled, or rolled parts. For those manufacturing methods there is enough experience to have established quality controls that allow everyone to trust the processes. I’ll have program offices ask to CT scan an AM replacement part before they put in on a platform, but they don’t do that with a cast part from the OEM.
Once industry trusts it and incorporates AM into their processes with agreed upon standards, we as a service will find it much easier to follow suit. I know it’s in work by a lot of people who are far smarter than I am, so I just have to be patient.
We also need to work with industry regarding supply chain resilience. This one keeps me up at night. If our materials and raw stock and parts for the machines are made elsewhere because it’s cheaper, that’s a massive vulnerability. It needs to be based here or else it’s a weakness instead of a strength.
And I need the human capital to be in place as well. The tech isn’t “push-button, receive part,” so I need the infrastructure to train a massive cadre of technicians who can employ this machinery and it needs to be lucrative enough to attract good folks. That’s more resilience for us as a nation.
Finally, I need the digital network that the OEMs use to produce these parts hardened. Cyber security based around these machines is a big deal, so I need industry to come up with those tools, the protocols, and most importantly the people who are capable of making all that happen.
For additional information on how AM can help make government manufacturing more effective and efficient, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of, “Groundbreaking INNOVATION: Additive Manufacturing for Government Agencies.”
*Featured image by Cpl. Justin Updegraff, Marine Expeditionary Force. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.