Aug 12, 2015 | By Simon

Although we’ve seen time and time again how 3D printing is able to produce parts quickly and on-demand for a variety of purposes, the capabilities of the finished parts have always been restricted to the material properties - which are more often than not polymer-based and unable to last beyond a short amount of time.  

Yet, as we continue to see new developments in both part design optimization software as well as more durable materials - such as the new Tough Resin from Formlabs - it’s now becoming possible for 3D printing to be used in the field to produce more functional parts - including quick replacement parts.  Just last week, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China used 3D printing to replace a damaged part of a vehicle while in a remote region.   

To demonstrate the capabilities of their 3D printers in the field, the PLA invited the Chinese media out to their Chengdu Military Region - located in southwest China - and conducted a drill that was designed to emulate scenarios that happen in the field.  

In this particular drill, a truck loaded with six oil tanks caught fire and were put out by various personnel from the PLA.  Upon further inspection, some of the soldiers noticed that there was damage to one of the vehicles - particularly, a fuel coupling.  Because couplings are non-consumables, the emergency depot didn’t have any replacement parts in stock.  Instead, the group immediately turned towards opening up a laptop and creating a 3D printed replacement part.    

According to reporters who were on the scene, one soldier, Dong Kaiyi was responsible for sourcing the 3D model for the coupling replacement while another soldier, Liu Deyi, fed material into the 3D printer.  Although the 3D printer used was not mentioned, it was noted that it contained “powder-like materials which were printed and binded together layer by layer”.

When a coupling has finished printing, a mechanic is immediately able to replace the part. After installing the new part, a quick test revealed that the fuel performance returned to to normal and the team was able to resume their task.

"One little 3D printer is worth five repairmen! " exclaimed Dong Kaiyi.

"Using traditional methods for manufacturing parts, many machine parts and processes are needed including cutting, plying, washing, planing, grinding and other complex processes.  Since we’ve put the 3D printer to use, we’ve been able to say ‘goodbye’ to a lot of the clunky machines and our field repair efficiency has greatly improved.”

According to one of the military leaders on the scene, the ability to bring spare parts on certain military missions - particularly those in the mountains - just isn’t feasible and the delivery of parts can be too slow.   

After many trial runs, the PLA decided to install a 3D printer on their oil equipment repair engineer car and have setup a 3D model library that contains many of the parts that they commonly repair including gears, ratchets, reels, shafts and others.  

The recent field-based 3D printing drill, which enabled the fuel performance to return to normal after the 3D printed part replaced the damaged part, was the first time that the group was able to use their new travelling “parts manufacturing plant” on-location.  

Needless to say, it certainly won’t be their last.     



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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