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Deploying MacGyver to Afghanistan

by Matt Cox on August 17, 2012

I wrote a story on Military​.com today that takes a look at the Army’s new Expeditionary Lab – Mobile, a 20-foot shipping container filled with advanced, rapid-prototyping equipment designed to be dropped anywhere on the battlefield.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force deployed the first of these new labs, complete with two MacGyver-type engineers, to Afghanistan’s RC-South to help soldiers find on-the-spot fixes to equipment problems.

“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,” said REF Commander Col. Pete Newell. “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”

The labs cost about $2.8 million each and include state-of-the-art equipment such as a Rapid Prototyping 3D Printer, a machine that can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. There’s also a similar device known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system for producing parts and components from steel and aluminum.

“This is cutting-edge technology that allows you to actually print parts and pieces to things,” Newell said. “They are not really inventing something new; they are modifying something that exists already so they can do something else.”

Below are pictures of what the lab looks like inside the connex container.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

DGR August 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

This is not ment to be a usable product, its designed to design the product and figure out if it will work before you waste money on the real deal. You then make the things out of the real deal. It saves a crap ton of money and effort when you are minimizing the work needed on the final product. Rapid prototyping is idea verification, not code for low rate production.

For example, a soldier wants a new baseplate for his magazines. With this system you can draw up a quick model on the machine, print it and see if its really what he is looking for. Then if he likes it, you sent the specs back to the US to companies who are able to produce a finished product. At least that is the idea, how well they execute the concept remains to be seen.

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Scott January 16, 2013 at 10:25 am

DGR, you don't have to send back to the states for low rate production. The RFAST Center on BAF can do production work, right it theatre.

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iamthebox August 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Ok we know the middle east has two things, alot of sand and alot of sun. I saw a designer build a rapid prototyping machine that used the sun to make a glass bowl out of sand. im going to jump the gun but imagine dropping off factories that could build autonimous vehicles using sand and the sun. Now that would be something! and all we have to do is have a drone drop some flying nano insects that then integate into the machines and drive them etc. ok give me a job DARPA lol

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dumb August 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm

A vehicle made of glass would be useless……………

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A. Nonymous August 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm

But the driver's visibility would be excellent.

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Josh K. August 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Fiberglass mayhaps?

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Riceball August 21, 2012 at 10:36 am

Fiberglass is really nothing more than a fabric mesh that's been covered in a resin, as far as I know there's little to no glass in fiberglass.

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Mastro August 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Looks too plastic based- would they be able to make add on armor or the famous rhino teeth to get through Normandy's hedgerows?

3D printing plastic zippers probably won't win the war-

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Musson August 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm

The Military does not recognize zippers. They do however understand "Fasteners – interlocking metal"

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Spc. Kent Seering August 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm

These machines are used in conjunction with each other. The 3D scanner can does a 360* x 360* scan on a part or item , automatically creates a program to produce the object. The plastic peace is produced to replicate the part, to where a programmer can make changes to the model. Load that new program into the HAAS CNC machine and actually produce a new metal part on the spot. (This is my day job, a CNC Programmer/operator, anyway.) It is a very cool set-up, and can be used to support our troops in combat in Quick order!

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Matt August 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm

They have made AR-uppers from 3s printers. They can make all manner of weapon repairs and replacement parts… etc. Great tech again and future thinking by the US Army.

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Matt August 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm
PAPL August 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Almost. They have made AR-lowers (being relatively non-stress-bearing). Uppers would required said CNC machine and aluminium, not plastic.

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Matt August 19, 2012 at 1:12 am

Yeah I meant lower sorry for spreading false information

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ltfunk2 August 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm

With the increasingly poorly designed and badly functioning equipment comming from the contractors, the need for rework factories on the front line is urgent.

The airforce and navy are showing the way with the F-35 and LCS – equipment that is never finsihed never ready and always needs to be fixed.

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Told ya' so August 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

The bureaucracy usually responsible for fucking up the equipment. Many time I've seen contractors who have been there, and give a shit about what their doing, but the bullshit bean counters in the acquisition world, who have not a clue about the mission, look at their incomplete requirements and come to the wrong conclusions. The only way for this to get better is to move the PMO's closer to the soldier, or staff the PMO's with soldiers.

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Nicky August 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Why not, Let's bring MacGyverisms into the modern battlefeild

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Noha307 August 17, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Can't wait to see what "illicit" things the soldiers come up with! Reminds me of all the cobbled together whiskey stills from WWII. I wanna see something on par with the Stinger MG in the Pacific.

Gotta love how the Chinook in the video drops the container on the b-ball court. "Sorry Sarge, we can't play today, there's a cargo crate in the way." XD

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GIJared August 19, 2012 at 11:32 am

What's even worse is that he flies directly over the FOB. At that altitude, he'll be blowing over all the sh*tters, destroying tents, and taking off roofs. Not that I know that from experience or anything…

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Michael Gene August 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm

AR15 parts are already being printed, this ain't your daddys plastic. http://boingboing.net/2011/09/20/3d-printed-ar-15

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JBomb August 20, 2012 at 1:39 am

Actually that is your daddys plastic. If you read the article they can't print an entire rifle because it is plastic and would shatter. Basically if it vibrates a lot, or is load bearing, or is receives a lot of pressure(like combustion) then it will crack/shatter.

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abs plus August 18, 2012 at 10:18 am
Mike August 18, 2012 at 11:07 am

All politicians related to extending our troops number of deployments should all voluntarily take a cyanide pill.

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Hickelbilly August 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm

It is A KIDS World, Full of Fun and Games.

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GIJared August 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I'm curious how they're going to decide who gets this dropped off at their FOB. Its no doubt incredibly expensive-I'm sure it will require approval after approval after approval.

That, or they'll just end up sitting still at Bagram and Kandahar Airfields…which is probably most likely.

Though I would REALLY enjoy slingloading this. Can't say I've moved a labratory before.

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Elijah August 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Jesus Is King Of All Kings

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Mitch S. August 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Good quote from the comments on the article Michael Gene linked to:

"1st amendment + 2nd amendment = The right to print arms."

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Isaiah S. August 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm

The concept is good. I like the idea of deployable labs…perhaps it could be expanded slightly more. Emergency Triages…mechanist support…FOP…the possibilities are quite endless. Who knows…someday we might be able to deploy entire supports structures like such.

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cawtech August 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm

This is today’s technology in any hi-end machine shop in the States. If the Engineers that are attached to the containers have lots of good field experience that container will be worth its weight in gold.

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traindodger August 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm

It sounds like a good idea on paper, but I'd be worried about security in the middle of a war zone. They would need to be guarded round the clock. Can't let a VBIED near one of these labs. I'm surprised they're even letting the public know about this. Terrorists, insurgents and militias have internet access, too. Losing one of those shipping containers full of CNC machining equipment and rapid prototyping machines to theft or sabotage could be costly, and you've gotta keep those eggheads away from flying bullets and bomb fragments.

That said, the benefit could be immeasurable. A lot of innovations in military technology come straight from the troops themselves, improvising on the battlefield with what they've got. In the long run, giving them access to skilled technicians and better materials to test out their hypotheses could prove to be worth the risk of sending all that equipment out there.

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Johann Schneider March 21, 2013 at 3:59 am

A mobile 3D printer – sounds like a perfect toy for the military. That should take mass production of spare parts, weapons, ammunition, and other equipment to a whole new level.

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kjjohn August 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

3D printing only works for plastic items, so I suspect it will never "replace manufacturing, but it could certainly shorten the production process of things like toys or electronic devices within factories – or, as mentioned earlier, polymer-based firearm components.

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Firebrand August 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Sorry to correct, but they do in fact have 3D printers that can work with metals and other materials; they are just not as far along or as commercially viable yet as plastic 3D printers. There was a TED speaker recently who brought up the idea of making large-scale 3D printers to build low-budget housing. The potential for 3D printers to change the manufacturing landscape is staggering, it's just a matter of developing the technology to the point where it's the more preferable option.

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Raraavis August 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

It can make items with metal, plastic, and other materials. The parts do not have to be printed separately they are printed in place (no assembly required) and moving parts can be printed in place as well. The only limitations at this point is the technology is in it's early stages.

Experiments are being done with printing organic material in hope that it will eventually lead to printing replacement human organs.

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