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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

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