Marines adapting to 3D technology to shore up equipment shortfalls, readiness

By CARLTON FLETCHER | The Albany Herald | Published: September 2, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — Col. Eric S. Livingston, commander of Marine Depot Maintenance Command at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, Ga.,  says all work by the 2,100 “civilian Marines” at the depot provides a vital capability to support the Corps.

“The Marine Corps is a force in readiness,” Livingston said. “And while our staff here at Marine Depot Maintenance Command is made up primarily of civilians, they share the values of the Corps. For our Marines to be ready, their equipment must be ready.”

Livingston, having served four active tours of duty, one in Afghanistan, three in Iraq, utilizes in his role as MDMC commander different skills than the ones traditionally utilized by the nation’s fighting forces. The depot is responsible for the maintenance, repair and overhaul of ground equipment that keeps military weapons systems in a constant state of readiness.

One of the innovations that has allowed MDMC to move toward the Marine Corps’ vision of readiness is the use of 3D printers. The technology, which has become increasingly popular in the private sector but has been utilized by major manufacturers — and the workers in Albany — for more than a decade, has advanced so significantly that it now offers opportunities perhaps only dreamed of in the past.

Vital parts that keep light armored and amphibious assault vehicles in operation that once took weeks to procure are now printed in-house in a matter of hours and days. And replacement parts once deemed unavailable are now being engineered and produced as needed.

“Who knew that running into somebody on the Joe Gibbs Racing team — who first told me about 3D printers — would turn into an introduction to such a great innovation?” MDMC Lead Engineer Chris Tipper, a 17-year veteran at the depot, said. “We had spent untold sums of money over the years making bad parts using antiquated measures. This new technology has definitely made our life easier.”

As Tipper and staff have mastered the use of 14 different plastics utilized in 3D printers, Livingston has presented them with another challenge.

“We have two metal printers on deck now and are planning to expand this capability with additional printers and supporting infrastructure,” the MDMC commander said. “It goes back to making one of those business decisions. The printers are costly at this point of the technology, but they allow us to manufacture parts that are obsolete, costly or not readily available through the supply chain.”

Tipper and Marine Depot Maintenance Command Micromanufacturing Branch Manager Nicholas Elmer offer a layman’s-terms take on operation of the printers:

The determination is made what materials will be used to print a specific component, and those materials are loaded into the printer. A computer file is created with the dimensions of the part being copied.

Measurements, made by hand or by advanced 3D laser scanners for more complex materials, are taken, and that information is entered into the computer. (“The scanner is used when there is more complex geometry with the part being printed,” Chase Minett, the future operations manager of MDMC’s Operations Division, says.)

Layer upon layer of materials (a plastic alloy or metal) is built at thicknesses of from 1/7,000th to 1/13,000th of an inch. Once printed, the component may be sanded and/or painted depending on the finish sought. Then it’s a matter of fitting the part.

“There are some parts that we need today that just aren’t manufactured anymore,” Elmer said. “These new metal 3D printers give us that capability. The metal printers are the same concept as the plastic printers, only instead of material being injected through a nozzle, metal powder is applied in extremely fine layers, then fused using a laser.

“When traditional means of manufacturing are no longer available, this gives us another valuable tool in our toolbox.”

Watching the 3D printers operate gives a visitor the sense of Livingston’s vision unfolding in real time. Precisely engineered parts take shape, layer by layer by layer. But it becomes clear that staff at MDMC have started to master the new technology.

“It’s not really more difficult, just different,” metal mechanic Eric Senn said. “It’s just a new technology. We’ve taken pieces of metals like these and made smaller parts, but now we’re not cutting a piece out. We’re adding layers to build a piece. It’s just a different technology.”

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