Army Sees Rapid Prototyping as Key to Rapid Innovation

3D printing 2U.S. Army science and technology leaders want to use rapid-prototyping equipment more often to help bring innovation to the battlefield faster.

Increasing the pace of innovation has been a popular topic this week at the Association of the United States Army’s winter meeting.

Army technology experts and defense industry officials have discussed ways to simplify and improve how capabilities are developed, focusing on keeping costs down in the early days of testing until after technology is fielded.

Brig. Gen. John Charlton, commanding general of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command, said the Army should use rapid prototyping more often when taking soldier feedback on new technologies.

“I think what prototyping allows us to do is to better understand the art of the possible because you don’t always know it until you see it, and the other thing I think it allows us to do is get immediate feedback from the soldier,” Charlton said Wednesday at AUSA.

The Army has been using state-of-the-art equipment such as Rapid Prototyping 3D Printers in forward areas in Afghanistan since 2012. These machines can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. Similar devices, known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system, can quickly produce parts and components from steel and aluminum.

“A lot of times we have systems during exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas and soldiers will say ‘you know if you just changed this or just changed that, this thing would be twice as good,’” Charlton said. “If you had the ability to just change this and just change that right there on the spot very quickly and put it back in their hands, you could validate whether or not that feedback actually led to a more valued outcome.

“So if you take that rapid prototyping and you pair it with the ingenuity, imagination and common sense of soldiers, you are going to get innovation.”

The Army is also changing the way it approaches long-range planning for S&T efforts, according to Mary Miller, deputy assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology.

Recent spending cuts have resulted in Army research, development and acquisition accounts dropping by 34 percent this year “from where we thought they would be four years ago,” Miller told an audience at AUSA.

While “modernization programs are slowed and new programs are delayed in their start, science and technology has been asked to take on a slightly different mission,” she said. “We have to go further than before. We have to mature technology more robustly, and we have to inform requirements.”

Part of this will involve a new approach known as the Long Range Investment Requirements Analysis process, which takes a 30-year approach to planning, Miller said.

“This has been an innovative business change to the Army instead of looking ahead five years, now looking out 30 years,” she said. “This is done to help us see strategically what decisions can and should be made to ensure that the Army remains affordable and brings the best capability it can to the soldiers.”

It involves partnering officials from the acquisitions, science and technology and requirements departments together to talk about whole process from development to sustainment, Miller said.

“When you get everybody in the room, talking together and they understand where their roles are and when they need to insert to insure capability is there for the warfighter, we get an affordable plan,” she said.

But not all of the decisions of this new approach involve mapping out ambitious new defense programs, Miller said.

“Last year, a major decision that came out of this long-range process was to complete the Ground Combat Vehicle program at the end of its tech development phase and not go forward,” she said.

“The Army could not afford to go further with that program and still do the remaining things that it needed to do. That was a difficult decision and not one done lightly.”

— Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@military.com

About the Author

Matt Cox
Matthew Cox is a reporter at Military.com. He can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.
  • stephen russell

    The future for all forces & cut budgets & change the procurement cycles alone
    change the whole DoD procurement system., Do this

    • wtpworrier

      What are you doing, making a statement or asking a question?

  • Dfens

    Also, way down deep in General Charlaton’s tiny tiny mind he truly believes that if you put 10,000 on 10,000 typewriters, it would just be a matter of a few years before they came up with a new work of Shakespear. Because it really does work just like that.

    • Dfens

      Dammit, 10,000 monkeys…

    • blight_

      Indeed, simply assuming that soldiers will McGyver their way to victory with 3d printers seems a little much.

      • Curt

        All I can say is that it would take an act of willful ignorance and a complete lack of reading comprehension to draw that conclusion from the post.

        • blight_

          “So if you take that rapid prototyping and you pair it with the ingenuity, imagination and common sense of soldiers, you are going to get innovation.”

          Clearly they believe their own hubris. While the improvisational skills of soldiers have allowed them to do better than “you fight with the army you have”, there are upper limits.

  • blight_

    Roman legions traveled with talented engineers. They didn’t wait for cost-plus contracts to build double-contravallations, earthworks and siege engines.

    • Dfens

      One time I had a pilot come to me and ask me if I could do anything to make tactical landings in Iraq and Afghanistan easier. Hell, we were doing a complete aviionics upgrade anyway, so adding some cues on a display somewhere to help them out should have been nothing. Instead some dumbass let management know about this verbal request, and the contractor management began complaining to Air Force management, and so on and so on. Suddenly it became this huge fiasco with hundreds of people coming down on this poor pilot demanding he be fired or reprimanded. It was the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever seen, and this all happened in early 2002 when the dust from 9/11 hadn’t even settled. A decade later I put that system on the airplane and it cost the US taxpayer about $1 million, and it was on the airplane too late to help a single airplane land in a shooting zone.

      • oblatt23

        So a happy ending then

        • Dfens

          Yeah, pretty much. And people wonder why I’m such a damn curmudgeon…

          • crackedlenses

            I don’t think anyone who has consistently read your posts would question that you came by your cynicism honestly…

      • blight_

        Rapid innovation? Never!

        Not until bodies start coming home.

        • Dfens

          Even when bodies are piling up, people are cheap. When is the last time you saw an airplane crash that the US Air Force didn’t blame on a pilot? I had one go down on my watch about a decade back because of a part that no matter how many times I told them it would fail and cause the airplane to crash it still got put on there. The accident investigation board report blamed the pilot. I replaced the part despite the fact that management on both ours and Air Force side preferred covering the issue up. The person responsible for putting the part on the airplane was never identified or held responsible in any way, nor was anyone in the chain of command that decided in his favor in putting the part on the airplane. And life goes on.

          • blight_jlsdafl

            My apologies. You are entirely correct. Bureaucracy does not turn over for one body. It needs hundreds, or thousands even.

  • t1oracle

    The first benefit I see in feilding 3D printers that repairs will be a lot easier to do since you won’t need to keep every part under the sun in stock, you can simply print the needed parts on demand.

    As far rapid prototyping in the field, in Iraq soldiers made many one off modifications to their vehicles. With 3D printers they could make those modifications more consistent and once the optimal solution is found, it could be shared with everyone. Although, you’ll still need an engineer to do the 3D modeling and evaluate the design. Of course, this could be applied to any piece of equipment.

    • blight_

      Companies thrive when soldiers are capable of doing less and less, since it means more and more dependence on the company to provide support.

  • oblatt23

    The only innovation happening is the desperate search for reasons to excuse fraudulent and incompetent managed programs.

    • Dfens

      Hell, they act like rapid prototyping with 3D printers was invented yesterday. Hell, I was prototyping parts on stereolithography machines in the early 1990’s (20 years ago). If the generals would pull their collective heads out of their asses they’d know that there are software engineers that can come up with apps for tablets and smart phones in a couple of weeks that could make soldiers lives a lot better. The problem is, first of all the Army would have to hire these engineers — the smart ones, not the lazy dolts, then they’d have to give them some autonomy to do what they do. That’s why it will never happen.

  • GI dude

    I call BS on this entire premise! If the greedy contractors find out that the “Army” is producing modifications to their junk, they will freak out and have their punks in congress put a stop to it!

  • SJE

    I agree with rapid prototyping and testing in the field. This is the exact opposite of most defense contracts. Imagine if some of the more expensive recent fiascoes had to compete?

  • Fatman

    This seems to overlook the mechanical engineering and computer programming skills needed to make good use of these machines. Modifications to military hardware are never as easy as they look and most systems weren’t designed with rapid prototyping in mind.

    • Dfens

      Damn straight! Here, if I could just make this modification to all my hand grenades… Yeah, what could possibly go wrong with that?

      I have several times recommended we make non-structural parts of airplanes using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printers. The problem is, they cost too little. There’s no incentive to reduce cost when you make 10% on every cent you spend. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

  • Blue1

    Finally, I can use my ME degree for more than a paper weight in my office. And maybe USMA will start turning out Officers who actually receive a STEM degree like it was originally founded for in the early 1800’s. I’ve always loved running into an Infantry Officer who majored in History with a minor in Russian, or an Engineer who study Art, or better yet, Sociology. WTF are you going to do with a BS in Sociology from USMA? Other an make General and head the Army’s Brigade Modernization Program…

  • blight_

    “Army technology experts and defense industry officials have discussed ways to simplify and improve how capabilities are developed, focusing on keeping costs down in the early days of testing until after technology is fielded.”

    I’m unsure how this statement goes with the rest, which is a paen to rapid fabrication via CNC and 3D printing. If you want to keep costs down, that is an overhaul of the procurement system which is perversely coupled to R&D, and a systematic problem across all services that cannot be fixed by rapid fabrication.