New contract to apply artificial intelligence to Marine Corps maintenance could streamline logistics and help lessen dependence of fighting forces from long supply lines. Ultimately, AI could enable the far-ranging manoeuvres envisioned by the multi-domain operations concept.
Most debate about military artificial intelligence centers on robots, but professionals usually talk logistics. Without fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and maintenance, no weapon, manned or unmanned, is going anywhere.
What’s more, while AI has made great progress in recognising objects/targets and navigating the physical world, autonomous combat robots are far in the future.
Marines will apply AI-driven “predictive maintenance” to part of its aging fleet troop carriers equipped with diesel engines, heavy-duty transmissions, and other features with hundreds million hours of metrics on diesel engines alone, and in the world of AI machine learning, the more metrics you have, the more accurate your predictions get.
The goal is to track the performance of each major component in real time — oil pressure, turbocharger speed, battery life, etc. etc. — and predict when it’s likely to fail.
Predictive maintenance has two benefits. First, most obviously, it lets you replace or repair a part before it breaks on you. Second, it lets you skip a lot of so-called preventive maintenance, when you pull your vehicle into the shop after so many hours of operation because that’s when, on average, such-and-such a component will need an overhaul.
There’s been a small blitz of media coverage of the contract, but it’s focused on how predictive maintenance can improve efficiency and cut costs, but there are uniquely military benefits.
Logistics has been a double-edged sword for Marines for a long time. On the upside, plentiful supplies of fuel, ammunition, and spare parts in good times have kept huge armoured forces on the march. On the downside, the long supply lines, iron mountains of supply stockpiles, and the huge numbers of support troops and vehicles required slow down deployments to a crisis and restrict manoeuvres once it’s arrived.
Marines could cope with these logistical limits when it has months to build up before the shooting started, with nearby as bases, and a relatively short distance to drive.
But logistical demands can be much greater when distances are longer with large combat formations moving along a single axis of advance, let alone supply convoys and depots.
So emerging concepts called multi-domain operations or distributed operations envisions Marines spreading out to make themselves harder targets. Relatively small units would operate “semi-independently,” moving frequently from one position to another, without resupply for days at a time.
The problem is Marines are not set up to do this today. Heavy armoured vehicles just require too much fuel and maintenance to operate this way. The long-term solution is to develop lighter and less logistically demanding vehicles, but recent efforts have been less than successful.
In the meantime, Marines need to figure out how to support the forces it has more efficiently so they can manoeuvre more freely, with less frequent pit stops for maintenance or supply runs for repair parts.
That’s where the new contract comes in. A lot of maintenance that’s done is based on what the owner’s manual says. You should go and get your oil changed and your engine checked every so many miles which can function as a baseline but it doesn’t take into account how the machine is being used and the wear and tear and stresses.
So we track not only the individual performance of specific components on specific vehicles, but also external variables like weather. Heat, cold, and humidity can all impose stress on machinery.
Where is this information coming from? It turns out the ability to put digital sensors on its products got ahead of its ability to do anything with it. A lot of machines have the sensors already on them that are producing metrics, it’s just that nobody’s listening.
Another problem is when vehicle is in a location with poor bandwidth, or if there’s a military reason to turn off all transmissions, the system can stop sending updates for a time. It can also do some of the assessments onboard the vehicle and may not have to send the results back to the central station minimising bandwidth use and transmission length.
But the big benefit is the ability to pool all available information in one place and then let machine learning figure out patterns, which can then be used to forecast future performance.
We can track general trends across a fleet of vehicles, but the real value is with prediction. Imagine if, instead of having to go to the shop for your scheduled work, you could have your status 24/7.
On the individual machine/equipment level, will the fighter unit make it through the day and do what it needs to do?
Our goal is for tactical commanders to know -- we have this many vehicles this is what the overall status is for each one so better strategic decisions can be made.
For deployed units, the ability to print parts on the go reduces the time it takes to secure new replacement parts and it also saves on the amount of gear the unit needs to take on deployment. For the operational crews, most importantly, 3D printing saves on lost training time and scrubbed operational sorties.
“While afloat, our motto is, ‘Fix it forward,’” “3-D printing is a great tool to make that happen. Marines can now bring that capability to bear exactly where it’s needed most—on a forward-deployed MEU.”
“As a commander, my most important commodity is time,” Although our supply and logistics personnel do an outstanding job getting us parts, being able to rapidly make our own parts is a huge advantage.”
A U.S. Marine Corps pilot has successfully flown an F-35B Lightning II with a 3-D printed part. The Marine Fighter Attack Squadron used 3D printing to replace a worn bumper on the landing gear of the fighter jet.
Marine Corps used the 3D printer as part of a process otherwise known as additive manufacturing. Without a 3D printing capability, the entire door assembly would have needed to be replaced, a more expensive and more time-consuming repair. Rather than waiting weeks for a replacement the bumper was printed, approved and installed within a few days.
The repair demonstrates the value that additive manufacturing technology brings to forward-deployed units. “I think 3D printing is definitely the future ― it’s absolutely the direction the Marine Corps needs to be going,”
Building off the achievement with the F-35 part, the MEU’s explosive ordnance disposal team requested a modification part to function as a lens cap for a camera on an iRobot small unmanned ground vehicle. Such a part did not exist at the time, but the 3-D printing team designed and produced the part, which is currently operational and protecting the robot’s lens.
The Corps has issued requests for information on a new cap and gloves for intense cold, and it plans to spend over 10 million on more than 2,500 sets of ski system for scout snipers, reconnaissance Marines, and some infantrymen. Zippers stuck; seams ripped; backpack frames snapped; and boots repeatedly pulled loose from skis or tore on the metal bindings.
Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, working with the Marine Corps System Command team focused on additive manufacturing, which is also known as 3D printing, have come up with a method for same-day printing of new snowshoe clips, which keep boots locked into show shoes.
"If a Marine is attacking a position in the snow while in combat, and the clip on their boot breaks, it makes it difficult for the Marine to run forward with a rifle uphill to complete the mission," "If the Marine has a 3D-printed clip in their pocket, they can quickly replace it and continue charging ahead."
If you can imagine how frustrating it is, you don’t want to carry extra snowshoes because they break and this happens pretty frequently. The Marine Corps produced their own design that was cheaper and alleviated a lot of the problem.
The teams designed and printed the new clip, made of resin, within three business days of the request, and each clip costs just $0.05, The team has also 3D-printed an insulated cover for radio batteries that would otherwise quickly be depleted in cold weather.
"The capability that a 3D printer brings to us on scene saves the Marine Corps time and money by providing same-day replacements if needed. "It makes us faster than our peer adversaries because we can design whatever we need right when we need it, instead of ordering a replacement part and waiting for it to ship."
Marine Corps has expressed particular interest in the technology and unit commands broad permission to use 3D printing to build parts for their equipment. The force now relies on it to make products that are too small for the conventional supply chain, like specialised tools, radio components, or items that would otherwise require larger, much more expensive repairs to replace.
Marines were the first to deploy the machines to combat zones with conventional forces. Several of the desktop-computer-size machines had been deployed with the Marine Corps crisis-response task force
The Corps is developing the X-FAB, a self-contained, transportable 3D-printing facility contained within a 20-foot-by-20-foot box, meant to support maintenance, supply, logistics, and engineer units in the field. The service also said it wants to 3D-print mini drones for use by infantry units.
3D Print Demo Capabilities Address Supply Chain Issues to Speed Delivery of Parts and Equipment in Time to Troops
3D Print Tech is going to bring about revolutionary changes to Marines supply system, with an associated big shift from the current order and stocking system to implementation of just-in-time inventory. It has the potential to move the point of manufacture for hundreds of components and parts closer to the point of demand."
The service envisions logistics scenarios in which Marine supply officers could special order parts and equipment for "just in time" production using 3D printers. Must demo rapid prototyping, improved logistics operations and cost reduction capabilities flowing from the Marine Corps embrace of 3D printing technology.
For example, 3D printers to manufacture a standard one-inch manual valve designed to regulate flow in a pipeline. A 3D printed version of the valve is being used for training, where it can be torn apart and reassemble the valve. A standard valve can cost as much as $50,000, but the 3D training version costs about $500. The valve mock-up is being used to familiarise engineers and mechanics with valve operation and repair procedures.
The Marines acknowledge key engineering questions must still be resolved before 3D manufacturing technology can be leveraged to streamline its supply chain. Among the engineering issues is determining whether parts made using additive manufacturing match military specifications for standard components.
"We will need to develop new contracting strategies to exploit on-demand or even automated procurements so a fleet user could put in a demand signal for a particular component. An order would be transmitted through the supply system to the most suitable geographic location where it could conceivably get a 3D machine printing that part without any troop interaction from the moment the demand signal is sent."
We put a group together to develop 3D print expertise while asking process operational and applications, designs, and goals to rapidly provide state-of-the-art solutions. The readiness is very important to us, but as well we don’t want to get above innovation in the new stuff, so we use 3D print where it makes sense; currently and in the future.
We’re looking at sustainment in design at the point of need—getting the right tools and equipment to Marines, with the right education and training, so they can make what they need to keep boots on the ground, aircraft in the air, and tanks rolling out. It’s not just structural stuff like metals and polymers; but we’re also looking at electronics.
Our key thinking is the organic, industrial base. We don’t want to make and do stuff in if we can transition on technology to the industrial base. The only exception to that is at the point of need where sometimes we need to make something far forward as a battlefield repair or a temporary holdover until we can get replacement parts, or we can design the permanent fix.
We also use 3D print for unmanned systems, that includes aerial systems, ground systems, underwater systems, and we have a lot of effort in 3D print for armaments. One of the keys to all the stuff we’re doing is a digital depository to keep all that information so Marines can get the information on parts they need and make the stuff.
We have a tiered approach of what we’re trying to do, we’re making new 3D print tech operational in our systems. The next stage is parts alternative, so that’s like a one-to-one replacement.
Now we’re in the phase where we do process alternatives, where 3D print is a better process or equal process to what we’re currently using. That’s where we’re standing right now, and where we’re ultimately trying to get to is true design for 3D print, so it’s a product alternative, so it’s something we couldn’t make before or the technology wasn’t there.
We are starting to make strides towards machines being used. Most of them were small tabletop units; but there were some larger 3D print machines. What we found was excitement among the people doing it. They were really trying to push the technology. But what we also found was no configuration control, everybody was working in little silos, there was no process standardisation, there was no digital thread.
But now, today we’re up to 50 including eight metal printers. So, tomorrow what we’re trying to do is get to the library of qualified parts. We want to continue to build the digital inventory of materials. And really what it’s all about is standardising our 3D print with documentation, certified operators and machines. Its all about how do we get to the future where agile manufacturing network create digital threads and secure parts library?
Our whole goal is to keep aircraft in the air. So we’re never going to be making more than a few parts at a time; but when we need them, we need them. So we have a lot of unintended spares out there.
We’re going leave you with two takeaways today. The first, based on both our manufacturing background in the industry and developing processes, that you learn by doing. You don’t do it by studying it, and then put your person in production, then from day one production is done. It doesn’t happen that way. So, the first takeaway is if you really want to get into it, you’ve got to go do it. And that means making lots of parts.
The other thing we saw immediately when we started getting our metal printers, was troops were focusing on cost. What’s it going to cost to make this here? I’m going to tell you right now, you probably already know this, when you start to learn how to make the part, it’s not going to be inexpensive, it’s not going to be less expensive than the part you were making traditionally. But if you start looking at parts with multiple year lead time, or we can’t even get it. That’s hard to put a price on.
We’re working with a number of industries trying to collaborate; but we’ve got to be able to do this ourselves, and we’ve got to be able to make one or two parts. We’re not trying to become manufacturers; we’re trying to keep aircraft in the air.
Marines have been doing adding to manufacturing for some time—we’ve been doing 3D print. We didn’t start easy with additive manufacturing end-use parts. We recently manufactured and installed a flight-critical titanium component on an MV-22 Osprey. It’s probably the first 3D print flight-critical part in operational aircraft.
The parts are still on that MV-22, it’s sensored, we’re monitoring it. It wasn’t a readiness driver, it wasn’t something that we had to do, it’s something we did because we would like to learn about 3D print parts, and we knew that if we could do a critical part, we could do everything.
We’re concentrating on primary places where we want to print. First is in the depots. We want to make a thing that’s going to keep planes, or ships, functional for however long it’s supposed to. We want to make the right thing on that platform at the right time to get it back into service.
We’re doing a lot of work to make things internally, but that’s not what we want. We want to go to industry, and say ‘We need things that have been obsolete and the guys been out of business for decades.’ We need that, and we need a lot of one, right? We don’t need a lot of 50 or 1,000. We need a lot of one of this part to put on the airplane, or ship to get it back operational.
The other thing that’s really important to us, is if we have a platform deployed in an operation environment, we need a backup. If a critical ship system or combat system goes down; we want to get that system back up. It doesn’t have to be back up forever, it might just have to be back up for two hours. That’s a big change.
What’s going to be important to us is additive manufacturing and new acquisitions. This is where industry partners can really help us drive to new, better capabilities. The things that you could do with additive manufacturing that you can’t do with traditional manufacturing technology, will allow us to develop systems that are more lethal, more survivable, and more sustainable. It may be systems that we have never thought about being able to do before.
Marines have identified several challenges that we need to overcome. Those challenges are qualification and certification … we need a digital thread to be able to securely share files amongst ourselves, within the Navy. We need to be able to print in a floating expeditionary environment with a trained workforce and business processes to be able determine ‘Should we print it?’
Marine Corps has focused on some use cases for 3D print. As we’ve mentioned before, readiness is a huge driver. Aircraft were deadlined due to one component. We designed the original and sent that over to engineering. It took a few iterations, and a month to approve but it’s installed. So it reduced the lead time from 300 days down to three days.
An innovation challenge led to 3D print Bootcamp Training. This is where we go out into the field—engineers—training our Marines so that they understand the current capabilities of the technology and they can make smart decisions.
The Marine Corps is fast and lean. You can imagine you can only carry in so much equipment, so they’re looking at how can we reduce what we carry in. With this training, they’re able to design and produce unit-specific solutions that have already been proven for deployed environments.
As far as tailored capabilities, we have weapons systems like unmanned aerial vehicles. The Marines need something that’s low-cost, literally just to look over the hill and see what’s on the other side.
So instead of expensive weapons systems, here is a design that could be 3D printed that was actually designed in house. If it crashes we can quickly print another component in the field using low-cost 3D printers.
Results from our 3D printing workshop included greater functionality, lower weight, and reduced manufacturing costs, and oftentimes all three. Several design considerations made these benefits possible:
Well-designed 3D-printed parts follow many of the same rules as those made with injection molding. These include: Use gradual transitions between adjoining surfaces. Eliminate large differences in cross section and part volume. Avoid sharp corners that often create residual stress in finished workpieces. Watch that thin unsupported walls don’t grow too tall, or they may buckle or warp.
The most dramatic 3D-printed part designs leverage 3D’s ability to create “organic” shapes, such as honeycombs and complex matrices. Don’t be afraid to use these shapes, provided doing so creates a lighter, stronger part. Nor should you fear placing holes -- lots of them in your design. With traditional manufacturing, drilling holes in a solid block of material increases part cost and waste.
Not so in the additive world, where more holes mean less powder and less processing time. Just remember, 3D-printed holes don’t need to be round. Quite often, an elliptical, hexagonal, or free-form hole shape would better suit the part design and be easier to print.
Just because you can print parts with lots of holes, however, doesn’t mean you should, especially if the plan is to make lots of such parts later. Because 3D printing offers tremendous design flexibility, it’s easy to paint yourself into a corner by not considering how parts will be manufactured post-prototyping.
Based on examples at the start of this design tip, an increasing number of units are finding 3D printing suitable for end-use parts, but many parts will transition from printing to machining, molding, or casting as production volumes grow. That’s why it’s important to perform a design for manufacturability assessments early in the design cycle, assuring cost-effective production throughout the part’s life cycle.
With certain techniques plastic parts produced need no support structures during the build process, so post-processing is usually limited to bead blasting, painting, reaming, tapping holes, and machining critical part features. Direct metal laser sintering, on the other hand, often requires extensive scaffold-like structures to support and control movement of the metal workpiece; without them, surfaces may curl and warp. This is especially true with overhanging geometries such as wide T-shapes, which require build supports beneath the arms which will have to be machined or ground away, thus increasing cost and lead time.
Designers and engineers should avoid “over-tolerancing” parts because it may force them to be built using thinner layers-- increasing build time and cost and will often call for secondary machining operations to meet ‘overzealous’ print dimensions. Because 3D printing offers so many opportunities for part count reduction, there’s less need for super-accurate fits between mating surfaces anyway—just one more example of how this technology reduces manufacturing costs.
3D printed parts might cost more upfront, but don’t let that scare you. With additive, you have tremendous potential for part count reduction, reduced weight and greater structural integrity, lower assembly costs, internal passages for cooling or wiring, and other features not possible with traditional designs.
Also, keep in mind that fixtures, molds, and other types of tooling are not needed with 3D printing, eliminating costs that might not be directly associated to the price of the individual parts. Focusing on the part’s price tag, rather than product function and “the big picture,” may leave you designing the same parts you did yesterday, eliminating opportunities to reduce overall manufacturing costs.
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