Star Trek replicators for the Army

There’s a new force on the front lines, and it’s anything but out of this world.

Remote operating bases in Afghanistan are using Star Trek-style replicators, 3D printers capable of fabricating on the spot whatever the Army may need -- from replacement vehicle parts to an entirely new piece of technology.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) worked with Applied Minds, Inc. and Exponent to make the science fiction dream a reality.  Thanks to their efforts, a lab equipped with the 3D printers is only a helicopter ride away.

'[It's] basically like a huge glue gun.'

— Westley Brin, product manager with the Army's Rapid Equipping Force

While the locations cannot be released, the first two labs were posted to forward operating bases in Afghanistan. The third is currently under construction and due to deploy around June this year.

There are four types of computer-driven replicator: 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters and water cutters.

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The state of the art lab is contained in a 20,000 pound, 20-foot long container that can be carried by a Chinook helicopter. It’s equipped with a 3D printer and a CNC mill, machines that resemble very large microwaves.

With them an engineer can build essentially anything.

How does it work?
“Soldiers walk into the lab and say, ‘this is my problem.’ The PhDs then do the work and show it to the soldiers. The soldiers give them feedback,” and they work together tinkering with the tech until it is exactly fit for purpose, explained Westley Brin, product manager with the REF.

The team uses software similar to that an architect would use, like CAD or computer-assisted design programs, to design their solution in the battlefield. After a design is drawn, they send the file to the 3D printer or the CNC.

3D printers, sometimes called rapid prototypers, take glue or resin and layer it to build the design from scratch.

Brin describes their 3D printer as “basically like a huge glue gun. When you pick up the object created, you can feel the ridges because it builds the object layer by layer. That’s why it’s so fragile.”

The 3D printers can make only softer plastics that last for a month or two -- it’s a short-term solution in the field. They can also build several soft models and send them back to the U.S. or anywhere else for volume manufacturing.

CNC mills work differently: Using a drill bit, they take a hunk of aluminum or metal and carves it out as a human would carve a sculpture.

Help build something

REF and the labs use the Broad Agency Announcements (BAA) site to solicit solutions. Anyone can submit a solution and if they think it shows promise they will send someone out to take a look. Know a MacGyver up for creating something for the troops? Check out the site.

A CNC can cut parts from more durable material; Brin describes its output as the “end-all, be-all piece” -- meaning it isn’t a stop-gap but a screw, knife, distributor cap or whatever that can be used for the duration.

The lab also lets technicians dial out of Afghanistan to anywhere in the world for advice, whether it’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a college professor or a 13-year-old girl. Anyone with a bright idea to solve the problem or improve the current solution is accessible.

From several thousand miles away, the pinch-hitting engineer can design and feed a solution to the lab in Afghanistan, where the 3D printer and CNC will work overnight. When the team arrives in the morning, presto, a new part is waiting.

What does it make?
Project Powerhand is one of the labs many success stories. Soldiers in Afghanistan use hand-held, ground penetrating radar to detect mines -- devices with a very limited battery life.

By creating tech that took the lifespan from 60 minutes to a whopping 36 hours, they immediately made soldiers safer and gave them a tool they could use on a three-day patrol.

Next in the replicator pipeline for the Army is a bigger printer that will combine the CNC and the 3D capabilities and most likely reside at a major base. The labs posted to forward operating bases will be able to communicate with this monster to produce parts as well.

As operations in Afghanistan draw down, the Star Trek-style lab will still have enormous utility, going out with the Army to accompany first-responders at natural disasters within 24 to 48 hours for example.