Marines with 1st Maintenance Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group are working to make this dream a reality. Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, has been a one of the Marine Corps' recent endeavors to eliminate the wait time it takes to receive parts for essential equipment; turning potentially months of waiting into just a few days, and ensuring Marines will be ready when duty calls.
Additive manufacturing is the process of making structures by adding layer-upon-layer of material, either plastics or metals, which combine to make a product. This process involves the use of computer-aided design software which relays messages to the printer to "print" the desired shape.
Marines with 1st Maintenance Battalion are taking this process and making it mobile with Expeditionary Manufacturing, or Ex-Man. The Ex-Man is a deployable manufacturing asset that provides personnel the innovative ability to create solutions to real world problems.
"We're taking multiple ways to manufacture and putting them in a box," said Staff Sgt. Welsey Jones, the Ex-Man operations chief. "We are taking traditional machining with metal, additive manufacturing with plastic, and a little bit of welding and we're bringing them together to serve more than one purpose."
The Ex-Man unit wasn't something put together overnight. It began as a volunteer project; while all of the Marines involved still focused on their primary jobs, they worked at improving the Ex-Man as a side project. After putting in countless hours of their own time, the Marines with 1st Maintenance Battalion have reached a significant milestone by "printing" a metal impeller fan for an assault breaching vehicle. The purpose of the impeller fan is to remove debris from the air-filter of the M1-Abrams tank and after a field test, the impeller fan proved to meet the standard. This "printed" part is one of the first metal 3-D printed vehicle parts to be successfully field tested in the Marine Corps.
"Right now if you needed this part you'll have to wait months to get it and pay more than $1,500," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Bower, a weapons repair officer with 1st Maintenance Battalion. "With what we are trying to do here, it would be one-third the cost and time it takes to go from, ‘I need it,' to ‘I have it,' and it can be a matter of days instead of months."
Expeditionary Manufacturing can be viewed as having the potential to change the world of military logistics and this is just the tip of the iceberg for the Marines of 1st Maintenance Battalion. This was one of the first major strives to implement a 3-D printed piece of metal and has opened the doors to more possibilities for the Ex-Man.
"I think what the Marines were really focused on was innovation," said Lt. Col. Foster Ferguson, the commanding officer of 1st Maintenance Battalion. "When we can get this technology in the hands of the Marines, you give them a little bit of training and you give them a vision, and they will do amazing things."