The Marine Corps wants to establish a secure, digital repository that Marines anywhere could tap into for help building needed spare parts with 3D printers.
Currently, the Marine Corps has a digital repository created over the last few years and populated with files, technical data and other information to support additive manufacturing technologies, but it’s not organized as something like a detailed catalog, Marine Corps Systems Command officials said last week during a virtual session at the WEST 2021 conference, cohosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA.
“We’re working toward a centralized digital repository the program offices will use to store their data and host Marine Corps design solutions,” said Kristin Holzworth, chief scientist at the Quantico, Va.-based SYSCOM’s Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell, or AMOC. “Digital infrastructure is really the key,” Holzworth said. While more than 300 3D printers already are in use by units across the Marine Corps, “what we have is a data problem.”
“There’s a lot of data already out there,” she said, “but it’s all disaggregated and it’s unclear what we have, what we don’t have, and getting fleet access to what we do have can be quite difficult.”
The long-term goal “is a true program-of-record style repository” called the Digital Manufacturing Data Vault, said Holzworth, describing it as “a one-stop-shop for approval process, version control, approved part drawings and technical data packages.”
The Marine Corps plans to implement the DMDV during fiscal 2024, according to a SYSCOM brief on advanced manufacturing.
The digital vault “will hold all of the engineering data and shared data across the Marine Corps, as well as our sister services and” the Defense Logistics Agency, Holzworth said. It will serve as a life-cycle management tool for program offices, she added, “and it really will be an enterprise-wide advanced manufacturing solution.”
“Interoperability is also a central tenet,” she said, and it will support collaboration with the services, DLA and allies as well as support innovation. “It will enable fleet-wide accessibility and provide access to the entire Marine Corps enterprise and also for operations in multiple environments, including base, station, depot and expeditionary.”
The existing repository has more than 400 parts, according to SYSCOM. A part-approval pipeline in place can process ideas from Marines in the field through the program office for evaluation. The program manager retains the approval authority on parts manufacturing, while unit commanders decide on using those parts.
Marine Corps Order 4700.4 on Additive Manufacturing, issued in March 2020, spells out the “rules of the road” for additive manufacturing, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Whitehead, maintenance officer at SYSCOM’s Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch, located at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The 58-page order details “who can print what, where, part approval process, training and education, and it also covers legal implications” with one chapter on intellectual property, licensing and other exclusive rights that can protect copyrights and patents.
The order, Whitehead said, is an “80 percent solution” that will be revised with time and experience, and currently, it doesn’t address cybersecurity.
Legal issues were included in the MCO to help guide Marines and commanders’ decisions on 3D printing and prevent any unauthorized use of a vendor’s intellectual property. “Do we have options to buy it, or can we do a clean reverse-engineer and produce our own technical data,” Whitehead said in the WEST session brief to industry.
“We do not want the Marine Corps to become a manufacturer,” he said. “We just want to fix our things now, and as far forward as possible, vice waiting to get the actual solution into the fight.”
Additive manufacturing systems are helping fill critical needs in the field and out in the fleet, due to the aging equipment and diminishing supplies of replacement parts, Whitehead said. “We all face obsolescence issues and can benefit more from an agile supply chain.”
AM capability is seen as critical to the Marine Corps’ focus on expeditionary advanced base operations and littoral operations in a contested environment, which “call for small, highly-mobile detachments of Marines to maneuver among island chains to execute a mission and to attack and leave before being detected and targeted,” he said.
That’s a big leap from traditional operations with larger, battalion-sized landing teams of Marines landing ashore with similarly large footprints of logistical support. “While we’re still working on what the exact laydown looks like, we know it needs to be smaller by an order of magnitude or more,” Whitehead said. “There is no supply chain, so we need a capability to produce something on-demand, and that solution just needs to be able to lift me home or get me to the next fight.”
Units in future operations will be lightly equipped and will have to move and fight with limited parts on hand, officials say, and resupply of a critical part could be hours or days away. “If I can supplement that (class) IX-block (supply of parts) with a digital IX-block – a hard-drive with many advanced manufacturing repair-parts files as I can fit – and a suite of general machines to make them on-site, it’s much more expeditionary and more efficient for the Marine Corps,” he said.
Starting in fiscal 2022, each battalion will be getting 3D capability through the portable Tactical Fabrication (TACFAB) printing kit, Whitehead said, although some units have been buying their own through the General Services Administration catalog. The MCO, in fact, provides room for unit commanders to purchase printing systems. The larger X-FAB mobile shelter is getting fielded this fiscal 2021, giving units more capability to build parts. Larger printing systems exist at depot-level facilities.
With the growing availability of 3D printing means any Marine could be a “maker” and learn to use the systems to make prototypes and parts, he said, noting so-called “Maker Spaces” are being established around the fleet and mobile training teams can teach on-site.