The US Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF) deployed its second mobile expeditionary lab - containing some novel technologies - into theatre on 7 January 2013.
Each laboratory is a 20 ft ISO container developed by the Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command and engineering company Exponent. It can be transported to a point of need by truck or helicopter and uses 3-D printers and computer numerical control (CNC) machines to replicate parts from aluminium, plastic, and steel.
This enables designers to rapidly prototype items in-theatre using computer-aided design software, aiming to accelerate the design and production process, as well as reduce manufacturing logistics. Front line users can then provide immediate feedback.
"We are trying to shorten the amount of time, the flash to bang, of idea to actual implementation," REF spokesperson Alison Sanderson told IHS Jane's . "We definitely want to increase sustainability for the individual soldier, dismounted patrols, small FOBs [Forward Operating Bases], and that kind of thing. Energy is huge right now for us," and 3-D printing enables forward engineers to reduce the logistics load.
The 3-D printer is a FORTUS 250mc system with two auto-load cartridge material bays capable of three-layer thicknesses ranging from 0.330-0.178 mm that can accommodate builds up to 254x254x305 mm within an accuracy of ± 0.241 mm. The printer requires 110-120 VAC, 60 Hz, minimum 15A dedicated circuit or 220-240 VAC 50/60 Hz minimum 7A dedicated circuit for power, and uses ABSplus-P430 production-grade thermoplastic with a tensile strength of 37 MPa. This is capable of producing low cost spare parts such as custom casings or modifications for weaponry and control boards, audio splitters, battery adapters, sensors, GPS receivers, and other fragile, exposed electronics such as those used in unmanned aerial vehicles.
In addition to the 3-D printer, the mobile labs are equipped with a 2159x1880x1549 mm M-2A CNC machine with a 30,000 rpm ISO 20-taper spindle, 5-axis drill bit, 5 hp (3.7 kW) vector drive, and 20-station automatic tool changer; and a 0.1-5,000x Keyence VHX-2000 Series digital microscope with a 54 megapixel 3-CCD camera capable of 3-D imaging.