Oct 2, 2017 | By Tess

A U.S. Marine Corps task force has set up a 3D printing lab on the ground in the Middle East, using it to 3D print quadcopter drones, tools, medical supplies, and more. Dubbed the “Ripper Lab,” the facility is allowing the task force to print devices and replacement parts on-demand and at a lower cost than shipping them in.

Over the past year, the U.S. Marine Corps has made significant strides with the adoption of additive manufacturing technologies, developing 3D printed components for future smart trucks, experimenting with 3D printed munitions, and perhaps most significantly, manufacturing low-cost drones.

Just months ago, a Marine Corps battalion evaluated the X-FAB system—a self-contained, mobile additive manufacturing lab which consists of four 3D printers, one 3D scanner, and CAD software. The X-FAB lab, which is still in development, would enable devices such as surveillance drones to be produced on-demand and, importantly, on the ground.

As another Marine Corps task force based in the Middle East has shown, 3D printing is already in use and is proving to be a critical technology in the fight against ISIS.

The Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command recently established an on-the-ground 3D printing facility equipped with 3D printers, materials, CAD software, etc. in the Middle East.

Named “Ripper Lab,” the 3D printing test operation was set up to see how well 3D printing could support the troops. A first of its kind, the 3D printer lab is operated by a team of 48 and has been used to manufacture tools such as wrenches, medical supplies, various replacement parts, and a number of quadcopter drones known as “Nibblers.”

These 3D printed drones, of which there are already about 25, are designed for increasing “situational awareness” on patrols. The adaptable UAVs are capable of flying for 20 to 25 minutes at a time, and can be used to monitor and protect the U.S. military’s positions from drones sent by the enemy.

Of course, there are still a few setbacks with the technology. For one, the Nibbler drones cost about $2,000 each to 3D print, quite a bit more than their off-the-shelf counterparts (which reportedly go for about $500 apiece). But the cost difference doesn’t seem to outweigh the advantages of in-situ manufacturing and the easy and cheap production of replacement parts.

(Images: U.S. Marine Corps)

“Across the entire Marine Corps… it takes time to get the training and then the resources, i.e., money to buy the materials and 3D printers and things like that," said  Col. Bill Vivian, the commander of the 7th Marine Regiment which led the 3D printing operation. "But 3D printers are coming to each installation in the Marine Corps and that’s starting to unfold now, so I think those possibilities are getting close."

Vivian added that since 3D printing has been adopted in the Marine Corps, he has seen a lot of interest amongst the troops: “Since we engaged and we let Marines at the lowest level know we’re wrestling with this new technology, we found out a lot of them were doing it anyway—several Marines had their own 3D printers. And so just taking advantage of natural talents we have out there, we were able to pull them in and use them to our advantage. It helped retention: Marines were very excited and we were able to do some things faster than we otherwise would have been able to."

Currently, Vivian and his task force are working on improving the 3D printed Nibbler drone by integrating higher-quality cameras and increasing the vehicle's flying time and range.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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