The US Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF) has sent state-of-the-art mobile laboratories, equipped with 3D printers, to Afghanistan. Designed to be self-contained and deployed anywhere, the high-tech labs will greatly speed up the process of getting new and modified equipment into the field.
Soldiers on the front line often find themselves using equipment in ways for which it was not originally designed; the extreme temperatures experienced in Afghanistan can, for example, make unexpected demands on the equipment and adversely affect its performance. This often means that tools, weapons and so on have to be re-designed for use in a particular theatre of operations but the process can be slow and inefficient.
It can take months for feedback from soldiers in the field to reach the REF engineers and be converted in to a workable solution, severely affecting operational efficiency in the meantime.
"The soldiers out there, they know how to do stuff; they know how to fix stuff and they know what they need to be able to do, but what they don't have is the technical expertise in many cases to do it themselves," said Col. Pete Newell, commander of REF. "It's really difficult to connect the guy who is building the product to the kid who really needed it to begin with, so what we went after is to connect the scientist to the soldier," he said. "Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier." (Military.com)
The $2.8 million labs are built inside shipping containers and can be deployed almost anywhere, either by truck or helicopter. Each lab is manned by two engineers and is equipped with an array of tools, as well as a CNC machine and a 3D printer, which can be used for rapid prototyping or manufacturing plastic components. The system means that existing kit can be quickly and easily modified to suit operational needs and even makes it possible to design and build new items in the field.
The technology being used in nothing new but the application of that technology vastly improves the efficiency of what was a laborious process, increasing operational effectiveness and potentially saving lives. The below video from the US Army's Rapid Equipping Force explains in more detail how the system works: