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USMC squadron looks to 3D printing

28th October 2016 - 15:45 GMT | by The Shephard News Team

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The US Marine Corps (USMC) is exploring the potential benefits of using 3-D printing in the field, to test out how the technology can improve field maintenance procedures. 

Formally known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing involves the joining of materials, layer-by-layer, to construct an object. The basic 3-D printer being used in the experiment uses a single extrusion head and spool of PLA filament (black plastic tubing) which feeds into the printer head where it is heated to about 220 degrees Celsius, making it pliable enough to print into 3-D objects.

The marine unit involved in the experiment opted to print door handles for HMMWV vehicles to put the printer to a real-world test. Vehicle door handles get snapped quite regularly in the field, and the opportunity to print replacements in the field offers potential benefits for maintenance purposes. 

3-D printing is proving to be a fairly simple process, with no previous specialist training needed. The only performance envelope for the printer itself is that it must be kept on a level surface so that gravity does not interfere with the printing and cooling of the object.

At this point the main downside of the technology is the time required – printing a single door handle takes around 45 minutes. On the other hand, the wait for a non-safety related part via the supply system in an expeditionary environment can be around a month.

The long term durability of printed parts also remains to be seen.

3-D printing cannot currently be used for safety-related equipment, but it is possible that these parts could be used as a stop-gap in the field while waiting for a factory-made part to arrive. Networking with other units who have 3-D printers and sharing results will also help refine the process, as pooling knowledge together will help identify what works and what does not with 3-D printing across the USMC.

There are also cost-effectiveness and legal issues to consider – such as whether warranties on expensive equipment would be voided if a part is replaced with a 3-D printed piece, or if intellectual property rights of the original manufacturers would be infringed upon if virtual models of those parts are created. 

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