The USAF is also very active in bottom up innovation.
Another program is Hacking 4 Defense founded by Steve Blank, Pete Newell, and Joe Felter(leave of absence now performing role of US Assistant Undersecretary of Defence for South & Southeast Asia).
Pete Newell(retired Army Colonel) stood up the Rapid Equipping Force a numbe of years ago to rapidly accelerate the development and deployment of tools to mitigate IED related casualties.
Hacking 4 Defense(H4D) is running across a growing number of University campus to solve complex Defense problems using the Lean Start Up methodology using a modified lean canvas called the Mission Model Canvas.
I am working to expand the use of H4D/MMC down here in Australasia.
Happy to share more if anyone is interested.
It’s great to see Marines given the latitude to experiment.
It’s also great to see the often inaccurate stereotypes of Marines being rigidly disciplined and inflexible in thinking give way to the reality that Marines have very often conducted comprehensive tactical experimentation and innovation.
Except that bottom-up development doesnt always work in the context of complicated systems. OK, the button works but does it work in all conditions the aircraft is designed for? Maybe a button here or there isnt much, but there are potentially hundreds of such instances on an aircraft. Small defects add up. Eventually something gives. It may sound cool to reduce costs and scream independance, marines like such things, but aircraft remain safe due to a religious dedication to parts managment. Start chipping away at that and you are asking for trouble.
I couldn't agree more on complex or extremely complex interdependent systems.
We certainly wouldn't want to replace an impeller for a precision milled high performance turbo pump on a rocket with a 3D printed part as the risk of catastrophic failure would be enormous.
But there is still great scope for field expedient replacement because of the simple fact that field expedient repair has occurred since mankind started killing each other in an organised fashion.
I think much of the genuine risk of cumulative patchwork repairs increasing risk of catastrophic failure could be mitigated with a smart asset registry/history that could manage "go/no go" for depot level or higher maintenance/refurb.
DOD would surely be one of the world's biggest consumers of duct tape. If just in time 3D printing can provide short term sustainment of assets that includes proper asset history documentation, the I would imagine that would be a net plus.
Looking further into the future, I could easily imagine both 3D printing and production output auditing for common consumables and wear items as not just field expedient, but becoming the standard.
Although I would think this will require a massive R&D/certification effort(so easier said than done), as well as designing this flexibility into future assets/platforms.
"For want of a nail" comes to mind.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
3D print the nail, and then replace it in deport maintenance.
"Stop the war, my button broke off, and I need a replacement."
I foresee a requirement like this being added to defense contracts in the near future, basically requiring plans and easy replacement for the plastic bits. Then the defense department can either build their own parts or bid out the manufacturing of those parts.
What in particular would you say is driving the USMC to this approach to innovation, compared to the other branches? Are they simply more exposed to unconventional warfare? Is it something about the type of person selected to be a Marine vs another branch? Something unique to their command staff? Etc.
The Marines are doctrinally committed to being expeditionary. The cultural mantra and statutory niche of the Marine Corps is to be able to project American military power anywhere in the world on very short notice.
You know what slows that down? Logistics.
The Marines have been at the forefront of trying to overcome logistics limitations. The MV-22 Osprey is the perfect example. If you want to deploy anywhere in the world without the lead time to build an airstrip, you need a bird that can fly long distances like an airplane and set down like a helicopter.
3D Printing is the JIT compilation version of materiel production. If we have to set up a base in a remote part of Korea tomorrow, we will not be able to build a logistics train in time to fix tanks and planes and MRAPs. But if we can 3D print whatever parts we need, our on-site logistical capabilities get a huge advantage.
The Osprey does not do all that much for Logistics over the first 48 hours, it's main advantage is longer term mobility. An airdrop from a C-130 can drop a tank or just about anything else anywhere on the planet without a runway. The issue is it can't then pick it back up without a runway.
First of all, the MV-22 does not carry tanks. Second, here's what happens when you try to airdrop a vehicle much lighter than a tank: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjF8ju7YeLI Imho it's pretty amusing you're telling someone who clearly has more domain specific knowledge than you that they're wrong.
here's what happens when you try to airdrop a vehicle much lighter than a tank
Tanks being "airdropped" looks very different from that. A C-130 "dropping" a tank involves flying down to within a few feet of the ground and then opening the cargo door -- parachutes are used in this case to slow the tank's horizontal movement, not to prevent it from falling.
For at least the last several decades the USMC has been doctrinally committed to pushing decision making authority and accountability down to the most granular component of the force, the fireteam . It's natural that they extend that doctrine beyond battlefield duties to other areas like combat readiness and innovation as well.
I am not a Marine. But I would venture to guess it has to do with the tide of maintenance & resulting readiness issues the Corps. has historically had to deal with (their budget is tiny compared to USAF/Army), and the demands of running combat deployments non-stop since 9/11/01.
Recently, they literally were pulling wings off of F-18s from museums, because several of their combat aircraft set to deploy in +2 weeks to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, were missing wings.
I'm not convinced about the 'pulling wings off of F-18s from museums' story - you're suggesting that aircraft about to deploy (in two weeks time, no less) had no wings and therefore combat missions ended up being flown with planes using the flight surfaces from museum exhibits?
You may be thinking of the following story, when an F/A-18 that flew in the raid against Libya in 1986 needed a part (the hinge for the front left door of the nose wheel landing gear) which was no longer manufactured, and was eventually found on an aircraft on the USS Yorktown museum ship - although it didn't fit. 
Yep I was mistaken. It seems the article you cited may have been the origin story.
What I read, (and it changed in my head over time obviously to the point of perpetuating an urban legend) was from the military times in 2016 - which cites anecdotes that House Armed Services Cmte. Chairman, Mac Thornberry received firsthand .
NP. There's a lot of urban legend style stories about the military (multi thousand dollar hammers, that sort of thing) passed around, both in the US and the UK, and I think it's important that where there are cases of actual incompetence or negligence they get reported, but it's counterproductive to invent things so it's useful to correct any false impressions.
All things equal, I (US Citizen) prefer that our military be effective and efficient. It troubles me though that there is virtually no public discussion on the unprecedented geographic scope , and time length, of today’s employments. This whole thread is interesting, and I think it is worth considering: to what end is all this innovation being applied?
I have come to the conclusion that the professionalization of the services, coupled with the parasitic business model of the “defense industry,” has turned the US armed forces into a standing mercenary force.
Ultimately, the blame for this lies with the corrupt electoral system in the US, and the unwillingness of our political leadership to exert a modicum of common sense, and reduce the scale of US military involvements.
We can’t rely on institutions that many entities rely on for their livelihood/existence to put themselves out of business.
It would be nice to see the military engage in disruptive innovation that would discourage open ended military conflict. (And the endless meddling in other countries ghastly civil wars.)
Jeez, I’m making a rhetorical point that the US army, which is not technically a mercenary army, as it is the official army of a sovereign state, has turned into an organization whose operations are driven by business interests.
Just that there’s no confusion, the point of a civilian-controlled military is so that the military doesn’t do what the military wants. The military does what its people wants (or maybe needs), based on instructions from the civilian leader(s) voted into political office by the civilians.
The military is but one of many tools in the toolkit of our civilian foreign policy makers.
If you have an issue with how foreign policy is done, the right person/people in charge that should know are the politicians. They control the military.
An army officer once gave me an amazing rundown of the ways deployed units have to recreate so many layers of infrastructure we take for granted. Military units really have to carry a whole version of their civilization with them, and how long they can maintain it determines their effectiveness (which is why most of military history is about logistics improvements creating newly dominant forces).
The challenges have a lot in common with space travel - not surprising that 3D printing has spurred so much imagination on both sides.
Side note: there's a quote in the article where Gen. Walters is envying what young engineers can do with this stuff. That's one of my favorite signals for tech that's not hype -- when it makes successful pros wish they were born a little later.
During the American Revolutionary War where the Americans moved the artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston over the winter of 1775-6 (still an era where the military response to winter was to hunker down somewhere and wait for spring before doing anything), and then proceeded to install them on heights overlooking the harbor overnight.
In WWII, the US managed the astounding feat of supplying the majority of the logistics on what was effectively three separate fronts (North Africa and later the Western Front via the semi-interdicted Atlantic, the Eastern Front via the Northwest Staging Route and Siberia, and the Pacific Theater, including mainland China via the Hump). It was the experience of The Hump that led the military to try relieving Berlin by air, which almost everyone thought impossible at the time but instead turned out to be a smashing success.
Note that in this era, if a farmer wanted to move west in search of cheaper/richer farmland, you would do it in the winter. Without paved roads, loading all of your stuff into a cart and driving it in the summer would mean you could get stuck in the mud. It was a far better option to load a sled in the winter.
The King's troops, growing up in a climate where snow doesn't (well, in 2018. I don't know about 1756) really stick to the ground, probably indeed would not have expected this.
Oh interesting. I assume some combination of climate change (including the Little Ice Age?) and a greater urban heat island have made the difference. People in my office (in London) had some amusing reactions to snow that would not have closed school where I grew up (near Albany, NY).
It's my recollection people heading west to Oregon and beyond would aim for making it to Independence Rock, WY before independence day in the summer to avoid having to attempt traversing the Rockies in winter.
Is that really the reason? If you are heading west because you want to farm, wouldn't it be better to leave in winter and arrive in time for planting season than leave in summer and wait 9 months to plant?
Many years ago, I worked with a gentleman who was a reservist with the air national guard.
For one of their weekend sorties, they had an entire platoon parachute out, and one of the other transport aircraft dropped equipment for creating a runway. At the end of the weekend, they flew back to land and pick everyone and the equipment used to build said runway, and then flew back to the base.
Truly a work of logistical and infrastructure art.
We did that a time or two, jumped out of the same aircraft that later picked us up. Battalion sized operation because that's the smallest jumps we would do.
We didn't have to build a runway or anything like that, they just landed the C-130s on the dirt runway we "tookdown".
Now that I think about it that's when we were doing a lot of training on taking down small runways for the War on Drugs -- between the Panama Invasion and Gulf War I. The mission was to jump in, cause a world of hurt to the cartel and then get picked up and fly home.
Don't know the specifics of the GP's story, but nowadays, it's mostly aluminum sheeting boards that lock together which are painted with a non-slip paint. It's actually quite impressive, seamless joins, etc.
The old Martson matting worked, but were FOD hazards as well since sand and rocks would often come up through the joins. You definitely don't forget landing on one though, really wakes you up as the aircraft shakes itself like crazy on roll-out.
Tangent: I've long wondered when we'd see invention of drop-in roads - transportable segments of self-leveling roadways, robust enough for heavy use & a substantial lifespan yet easily disconnected & replaced (unlike current stubbornly permanent structures). In that context, I'm interested to the answer to your question.
I was pretty sure my coworker said it was a runway (they used C-130s out of Peoria IL and based on the description it sounded like they were doing STOL exercises) but I’ll message him on LinkedIn to double check.
The US military, and especially the USMC, is able to mount operations almost anywhere on the planet on reasonably short notice. Very few other countries have the capability to field a sizable force far from home. Most can't operate far from their permanent bases. Even the UK has trouble - they've downsized so much.
That's what makes the US military so expensive. On the other hand, the US does so much of this that everybody knows the US can do it. The USMC tries for a high tooth-to-tail ratio, which is great for short wars, and not so good for really long ones. (Wars seem to be either week long or decade long now. Not much in between.)
China is working on getting more capability in force projection, but it's slow going. The USSR had a reasonable capability, which ran down after the breakup of the USSR. Russia is trying to build it back up.
The only hitch? The parts weren’t approved for installation on an aircraft. “I said, put the button on,” Neller told the National Defense Industrial Association last week. “Print a bag of them and hang them there.”
This is a great story about disruption. The Marines seem to be on top of trying to continue thinking outside the box. That turns out to be very difficult to do in any large, old organization. I heard an interview with the Commandant last week. They asked him what kind of tech he wanted most.
Bingo. Better batteries would change everything, not just the Marine Corps. There are few technologies like batteries. Cost-to-orbit tech is one of them. If we change those technologies, we change the entire rest of the economy. I believe the service used to call things like that "force multipliers". It's neat to see 3D printing _perhaps_ becoming a force multiplier in many areas.
Putting on my cynic hat, expect to see a lot of pushback form the establishment where this technology disrupts the most. Those folks with button standards aren't going to go down peacefully.
Semi-related. Navy F/A-18 pilots were issued Garmin watches which have a built-in barometer/altimeter because the cabin altimeter gauge of their aircraft was difficult to read due to its size and location, and "its audible warnings are ineffective through the flight envelope." The watches, once issued to pilots, will alert them when cabin altitude reaches a preset threshold.
Good way of thinking of something like that is that it's a "spare tire". It's not meant to completely replace the busted part, but just last long enough until you can get a proper replacement installed. In the military, that could be the difference between life and death.
A guy who had been in the air force told me about their electrical generators. They used them to set up temporary air traffic control installations to guide fighters to targets and stuff. The generators would kick off after X hours of continuous operation, to protect them from destroying themselves (due to heat, I presume). That's standard on civilian versions of the generators. But the air force wouldn't buy them unless there was an override. If you need that generator so that you can control the 10 more minutes of an air battle, even if it destroys the generator, you can get it.
Older military aircraft used to have a 'War emergency power' setting (WEP), it produced more than 100% of the engine's normal rated power but it decreased the operating life of the engine substantially and could only be run for a few minutes.
When it's acceptable and when it's not is an important question. And the fundamental problem of command/management is that you want that decision made by the lowest level of command/management who is fully competent to make it.
I would think that a fan that has the purpose of cleaning the filter would have to blow in the reverse direction to blow the trapped dirt out. It would probably be on the clean side of the filter in that case, and any shrapnel it spewed off would go right into the turbine inlet.
It's using air flow to blow the particles out before they hit the filter. If I understand correctly, the part in question does similar, pulling debris out of the intake stream without being in series with it.
> asked him what kind of tech he wanted most. "Better batteries"
Yes, but. As I recall the story, when a fuel-cell consumer powerbrick startup, with a working production prototype, and the broader impact of expanding the envelope of consumer-scale parts supply in several areas (eg air pumps), went looking for $10M to start their supply chain, and avoid dying, ARPA responded "we can do $1M, but our budget is tight just now, and we can't do 10." What people say they want, and what they're willing to pay for, are often poorly correlated.
> Better batteries would change everything [...] Cost-to-orbit
Yes. Also small durable high-torque electric motors.
The more each marine knows and the more tools each has at his/her disposable, the more flexible each individual and unit will be. Flexibility can be important in fighting.
A Marine unit with multiple materials and multiheaded 3D printers could print more than replacement parts for downed war fighting machinery. Specific weapons or other gear could be adapted to fit the situation.
For example, a particular part isn't working (like the altimeter in the previous comment) due to poor design in bad testing. Marines with access to the raw CAD files of the part could modify the cowling/housing shape to make it more visible. The finished model could be stress tested in a physics modeling program. When it passes, a metal part could be printed and installed. A thermistor could even be added to provide heat to stop frosting. If it works in one plane, it could be duplicated to the whole squadron. And this quick adaptability in changing design method could be applied to anything: backpacks that are the incorrect shape and cause backpain, bump stocks that cause damage on the recoil, or a new water checkvalve screen could be designed to better force water out of soaked boots and stop foot rot. The design work could even happen remotely back on the mainland with more design resources.
This could happen within 24hrs from a supply unit stationed just off the front lines doing most of the work. At the end of a 6month engagement, the vehicles, equipment and gear could all be substantially different than how they started.
This extreme adaptability could end up being a huge advantage.
I love the Commandant's attitude. He seems to get it.
I've come across many Marines in my personal history as a diplomat brat (Marines protect all US Embassies abroad) and worker (the best boss I've ever had is a Marine). I've only met one I don't respect and/or admire, and he was drunk and belligerent on the Metro (not towards anyone in particular, just being a loud ass).
From contracting with the Air Force, I can tell you that they have a love affair with spending money. Most of the projects I seen revolved around making sure everyone spent as much as possible, so that they could get more.
This comment gives me the opportunity to tell a joke I learned while working on an Air Force base.
One of the things most civilians don't understand about the U.S. military is that the various branches all speak different languages. The same words can mean very different things, depending on the branch of service of the person you are saying them to.
Take, for example, the simple order "secure the building."
If you ask a Marine to "secure the building," they will hand-pick a team of a dozen Marines, who will chopper onto the roof of the building at midnight with knives clenched in their teeth. They will then work their way down floor to floor, slitting the throats of everyone they meet along the way, including the cleaning staff, because why not. When they reach the lobby, they will form up in neat ranks and scream at the top of their lungs that the building has been secured.
If you ask someone from the Army to "secure the building," they will put in a request for an artillery strike, which will pummel the building as well as most of the surrounding block into a pile of rubble. When the artillery fire stops, the highest-ranking officer available will run up to the top of the pile, plant an American flag, and tell anyone who happens to be standing around that the building has been secured.
If you ask someone from the Navy to "secure the building," they will send an encrypted message via satellite to a submarine 900 miles away. The submarine will then fire a Tomahawk cruise missile, which will fly at 500 miles per hour 100 feet off the ground into the building's HVAC exhaust. The explosion of the warhead will cause the building to collapse in on itself. The Navy will then issue a press release stating that the building has been secured.
If you ask someone from the Air Force to "secure the building," they will get you a seven-year lease with an option to buy.
So I have to nitpick a little on the difference between army and Marines in this joke. Marines have artillery also, and army soldiers have instructions to “secure” the building that is basically like what you said the Marines do. The difference in the use cases seem to be one where you know there are no non-combatants in the building and the building itself is not of any value (shell it to the ground), vs having to be more surgical and sweep every single floor (which poses more harm to the service members executing that mission)
Generally, pay is the same across all the branches and is public information. Although, I've heard the AF will give additional "substandard housing" pay if they require you to stay on an Army base.
It is usually joked that AF members are more office workers than soldiers, which is kind of what this joke is implying. My recruiter for the AF embraced that, telling potential recruits the AF has more college degree holders than all the other branches combined (not sure how true it was).
I was an army wife. I was friends at one time with a former air force wife. She told me that where army personnel generally get a pay cut during field time, the air force gets extra pay during field time. Edit: She specifically told me that where army wives were stressing about money during field exercises, she was out shopping.
A high percentage of compensation in the military is in the form of benefits, making it incredibly challenging to quantify or compare to a normal pay package.
Well, there's a huge difference in the mindset of deployed grunts vs stateside red-tape laden behemoths.
When you're deployed and something important breaks, you have a BIG problem. The impact is usually somewhere between you being absolutely miserable for weeks to costing you your life. When you're stateside and something important breaks, you have a reason to expand your empire at next year's budget meeting.
It's just a shame most people don't know that there is such a difference. I wouldn't feel so bad if all that money was going to important things. But I witnessed so much waste, and so many people who do literally nothing but wait for retirement. It's upsetting that that money doesn't go to the soldiers who need it.
I've heard this is common in business world too. Due to management & bean counters not comprehending organizational needs and leading-without-understanding they just cut your budget to what you last used. Nevermind if something made the spending leaner last year because some expenditure happens on a greater cycle than the 10-K form can handle. This gives better quarterly numbers while crippling the flexibility of that department. So the lower ranks compensate for such an incompetence by spending all the budget they can if there's any left.
When you see it you immediately look to the top and question their actual leadership capability. In this instance, it is politicians arguing about budget, but we all knew they didn't know squat about the consequences of cutting a budget.
It is also in part a factor of the way procurement works, many beancounters still can't grasp that needs vary and problems happen, so you get a budget, if you come up below budget you lose the extra and may get your next budget lowered to match, and getting more budget is a hard fight.
As a result, departments want to have a budget as close as possible to a worst-case scenario, spend the entire year thrifting in case something major occurs and then have to blow it all up right before EOY.
I'm imagining climbing into a helicopter and seeing the panel with buttons and switches that were printed in various bright colors - whatever they had on hand when each part was made - and thinking I'm flying with Fisher Price.
In an era where global overnight civilian shipping is taken for granted, that it takes the military so long to ship parts that 3D printing parts of questionable ability to meet spec is considered an "innovative" solution is just more evidence that the military's logistics are sad and ineffective.
Forget buttons for a second, the article references fans that took a week to 3D print.
Yes, the military has to special-order a wide variety of parts and products with no civilian market. This makes the argument that some products may be more expensive. If the cost of manufacturing can be dramatically decreased through 3D printing, then properly account for cost by front-loading R&D costs, open-sourcing the designs which were developed with public money, and buying from the cheapest contractor which meets spec. If that contractor uses 3D printing to offer the lowest cost, cool. If lowest cost doesn't require 3D printing, who cares? Buy more than the military needs, but not so much as to be inordinately wasteful, to keep the part constantly in stock across a variety of globally distributed warehouses close enough to people who would need that part to be able to deliver requested parts within a week. It's a hard problem to be sure but more or less solvable (for reasonable optimizations in the absence of a constantly renewing solution to an NP complete problem).
Yes, the military has to be able to supply forces in areas where no civilian infrastructure exists. And if you want to argue for 3D printers somewhere like Antarctica where supplies can only be delivered for a few months of summer out of the whole year then that would make sense. If you want to argue that setting up a full warehouse with all parts which may ultimately prove necessary in a brand-new FOB in a war zone is at the very least a very difficult problem because of the difficulty of keeping track of everything that goes into that FOB not to mention keeping sufficient stock levels then I may agree with you. Arguing that it's reasonable to wait for months or even more than a year for parts to be delivered from a warehouse in the continental US to large, major, permanent bases located within the continental US? No, hell no, no freaking way, no way to excuse that other than general incompetence.
Militaries are never going to be nearly as efficient or as quick as UPS / FedEx / DHL for all their usecases. And that's fine. But taxpayers should not allow that to serve as an excuse for perennially poor logistics performance relative to what should be expected in comparison to the private sector.
Having recently purchased ~400 dental surgical instruments from some dude in Pakistan for less than $2000 including shipping, and received them in less than a month even though they were manufactured after I ordered them, I can imagine no possible purpose of 3D printing surgical instruments. They are stainless steel and will last approximately forever.