Three years into the coalition fight against Islamic State militants, the battlefield remains fairly austere, without the major forward bases or large unit presence common to previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Into this environment, the Marine Corps has quietly deployed several 3D printers, hoping to highlight the value of the emerging technology to speed up supply chains and return broken gear to the fight faster.
"We were the first service to actually deploy 3D printers to a combat zone with actual conventional forces," Marine Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, the service's lead for additive manufacturing and 3D printing development and implementation, told Military.com in a June interview. "There have been printers deployed in the past in the special forces community, but they were always deployed with engineers. We've actually deployed these printers with our Marines, and given them the training [to use them] while deployed."
Marine Corps officials are remaining coy about exactly where the printers are located and how many there are. But Marotto confirmed that several of the desktop-sized machines are actually in a combat zone belonging to the Marine Corps crisis response task force assigned to the Middle East, while more are within the region, but behind the front lines.
While all the military services are pursuing the possibilities inherent in 3D printing with interest, the Marine Corps has perhaps shown the most eagerness to get the technology into the hands of rank-and-file Marines in active units. A September 2016 message to the force gave individual unit commands broad authorization to use 3D printing to create repair parts for existing equipment.
To date, Marotto said, there are 40 3-D printers spread across the fleet. But demand continues to grow, he said, and that number could swell to 60 or 70 by this fall.
In the combat zone, the printers are used to quickly reproduce essential parts that might otherwise have to be shipped from a stateside location or a distant Defense Logistics Agency hub, said Lt. Gen. Michael Dana, deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics.
"There are radios out there that have plastic components. We've been able to print plastic components for those radios, to make them operable when they were inoperable," Dana told Military.com. "This way it has much promise to provide on-demand parts literally within hours, worst case days, whereas if you're dealing with a traditional, back in the States to point of need, you're talking multiple days, weeks and sometimes even longer. So that's the attraction of this capability."
In addition to radios, Marines have printed small items ranging from specialized wrenches needed to service 81mm mortar systems to splints and other medical apparatus, Marotto said. And the possibilities don't end there.
In June, the publication Defense Systems reported that the Marine Corps is preparing to deploy a first-of-its kind 3D printed quadcopter-style drone, known as "The Nibbler," into combat.
"Marines have always had great ideas; they have always been innovative. They haven't always had the capability to be able to manufacture that or to make it right there, at least a prototype," Marotto said. "And now 3D printing is opening up those avenues for Marines to capitalize on their innovative ideas."
Meanwhile, Marine officials continue to experiment with other ways to use additive manufacturing to make deployed troops less reliant on supply depots thousands of miles away.
"We believe that additive manufacturing, 3D printing, has much promise to flatten the supply chain," Dana said. "Because the way our supply chain is currently configured is factory to foxhole. But the factory is all the way back, most times, in the United States."