With technological improvements driving down costs, additive manufacturing has finally broken into the mainstream as many companies are now harnessing the advantages of additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing has revolutionized the ability to innovate and rapidly prototype, test, and adapt products and designs in cost effective ways. It has also dramatically overturned existing notions of economies of scale with the potential to produce small quantities of units at reasonable costs. While still far off, the idea of “economies of one” hints at the potential of additive manufacturing to create mass customization.
With these benefits becoming more achievable, additive manufacturing is spreading beyond the private sector into the US military. As the smallest and least bureaucratic of the four US military services, the Marine Corps has been the most aggressive with their efforts to embrace additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing naturally fits into the Marine Corps’ unique warfighting philosophy of maneuver warfare, a doctrine that prioritizes incapacitating the enemy through more rapid and effective decision making. The Marine Corps employs the concept of decentralizing decision making to the lowest level where the Marines in closest contact with the enemy are in the best position to quickly make the right decision. Regarding additive manufacturing, the Marine Corps has recognized the unprecedented potential to “innovate in place” and allow dispersed smaller units to produce unique, mission specific equipment needed to dominate the battlefield. As the Marine Corps, moves toward “distributed operations” with small units dispersed across the globe, additive manufacturing offers an appealing solution to the daunting logistical challenges associated with this new operating style.
In the short term, the Marine Corps is leveraging the cost effectiveness of prototyping with additive manufacturing to solve existing problems. Surprisingly, the Marine Corps is innovating just like many tech start-ups by crowd sourcing innovation. Through efforts like the Marine Innovation Challenge, the service is incentivizing junior Marines to come up with solutions and test their ideas through prototypes built by 3D printers. One junior Marine, Corporal Rhet McNeal, built a lightweight, portable fixed wing unmanned aerial system at a cost of only $600 compared to existing systems that cost thousands of dollars. The Marine Corps then paired McNeal with an additive manufacturing company to build out this model which could become a standard issued equipment set throughout the Marine Corps once trials are complete.
Over the next ten years, the Marine Corps hopes to institutionalize additive manufacturing to the point that a squad of 12 Marines can produce its own equipment set and ammunition specifically tailored for its mission or make replacement parts specific to the unit’s needs. The Corps has already shown signs of progress as Marines used 3D printing to build engine impellers for M1A1 tanks. Engine impeller were notorious for routine failures, so the ability to now produce replacement parts locally on demand significantly reduces the down time of tanks and increases the readiness of the entire tank unit. The ultimate goal is to spread additive manufacturing capabilities throughout the service and achieve this type of innovation across a wide array of equipment and products.
One of the challenges the Marine Corps will face is bureaucratic inertia. While the Corps has been effective to this point by creating a specialized unit, NEXLOG, to lead additive manufacturing, its existing acquisition structure is not nearly flexible enough to rapidly deploy 3D printers across the service. The Corps must maintain its willingness to bypass normal processes in order to achieve immediate penetration. As these examples show, the Corps already has the technological capability to leverage additive manufacturing, but it must not treat 3D printers like a normal piece of new gear that take years to distribute throughout the service.
As the Marine Corps moves forward, key questions are can the service capture the lessons learned from private sector companies in their efforts to harness the power of additive manufacturing and can the bureaucracy of the Defense Department show enough flexibility to give the Marine Corps the resources needed to implement this unique plan? (Word Count: 799)
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