Printing the Future: 1st Maintenance explores 3-D printing applications

The Marines of 1st Maintenance Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group, demonstrated the potential of the expeditionary manufacturing facility and 3-D printing capabilities to the commanding generals and staff of I Marine

A group of West Coast Marines are tapping into 3-D printing technology that has the potential to cut the wait for some replacement parts from months to hours.

Over the last month, members of The Marines of 1st Maintenance Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group have had 3-D printing technology for about one month, said Lt. Col. Gregory Pace, the battalion commander.

The gear is on loan from a company called Inventor Cloud, Applied Systems and Technology Transfer. The Camp Pendleton, California-based unit will try it out for six months while the Marine Corps service evaluates its potential use and cost savings. 

The effort is part of the service's Corps’ ongoing search for innovative solutions to common problems — and this is a problem Marines know all too well. Every deployment is chock full of horror stories about lengthy wait times for specific items needed to fix a piece of gear. While high-cost items are generally kept in stock, getting a hold of small, less expensive $1 little plastic parts often proves problematic.

Going from a sometimes 60-day wait to printing solutions on demands with same-day-service "has the potential to be revolutionary," especially for forward-deployed forces, Pace told Marine Corps Times.

"I don't see this as replacing our current supply chains, but I do see it as a great opportunity to augment existing capabilities," he said.

Wait times for parts can be especially long for obsolete equipment. Marines with an East Coast squadron recently used a 3-D printer to make an aircraft part they needed, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, head of Marine aviation, told lawmakers last week. That was after the Marines tried to cannibalize the part from a decommissioned aircraft at a museum.

Metal shops and fabrication are nothing new to maintenance battalions. To produce a needed item requires careful hand-eye coordination, precise calibration, and time. Mistakes are costly; not only is there a loss of the raw material, but also a further delay in returning the item to operational status.

Printing in 3-D takes the opposite approach. Known as additive manufacturing, as opposed to the common subtractive manufacturing that removes materials, the technology centers on printers roughly the size of a refrigerator that melts and spools just about any kind of less-costly plastic. Precise layers of thin polycarbonate plastic streams then turn 3-D graphic images into reality.

The technology 3-D printing has been used to produced everything from tools and phone jack plates to gas caps and radio brackets.

"We can use this technology to quickly manufacture a prototype weekend match up against the actual repair we need to do to test fit, form, and function," Pace said. "If that is good to go, we can move to the next step and fabricate with metal."

Huge cost savings 

Fleet Readiness Center Southwest, an aviation repair shop based at Naval Station North Island, California, is home to three state-of-the-art 3-D printers.

The printers have been used to update old F/A-18A-D Hornets, which some have likened to fixing classic cars. Mike Furlano at the Fleet Readiness Center said the aging jets have shown up with bulkhead cracks that can cost about $1 million and six months to fix. By using aluminum and 3-D printing, the team came up with a tub fitting to reinforce the bulkhead, bringing the cost of the repairs down to $25,000.

Pace said it took the Marines with the maintenance battalion It takes about three days to  of training to learn the scanning software and printing process. Once the system was online, Marines were printing solutions within four hours, he Pace said.

They've focused has been on small plastic pieces common to communications gear. For example, the bracket that sits on the front of some radios and amplifier set and holds a radio in place is known to break with regularity — and it's not something Marines can replace. is a non-procurable part. Tired of cannibalizing other sets, radio operators turned to 3-D printers to produce new quickly began to produce enough brackets to meet the need, and look to install those parts in the near future.

The Marine Corps is not alone in testing this technology. In addition to the Fleet Readiness Center's fixes, the its pursuit. The Navy has used 3-D printing is sold on the concept, which has been used to manufacture obsolete and expensive circuit card clips on Tomahawk missiles; a custom oil line wrench for the MH-60R Seahawk that has saved 80 labor hours per oil change; and a hydraulic manifold for the V-22 Osprey that has a 70-percent reduction in weight, cut fabrication cost by 30 percent, and labor cost by 10 percent.

Officials said that in the near future, metal printing will provide engine and mechanical parts that typically have long wait times and high costs. The Navy looks to eventually use 3-D printing to produce fully functioning unmanned vehicles.

"It is an exciting time and we are thrilled to be a part of it," Pace said. "It is exciting to look at things with a fresh perspective and not the entered by existing orders and policies suggest you should do. You can't have innovation if you are beholden to systems that were created years ago. I don't see this as replacing our current supply chains, but I do see it as a great opportunity to augment existing capabilities."

Meghann Myers contributed to this report.