Examples of advanced technology have throughout history found a home in military applications. In peacetime, defense contractors stoke the fears of military leaders, convincing them to procure the most advanced systems money can buy. However, in wartime, the soldiers, sailors, and marines on the frontline of battles across the world are left to use, maintain, and repair this equipment, often across the globe and in inaccessible locations. In times like these, where getting specialty parts through a cumbersome logistics and supply chain is nearly impossible, the U.S. Military has turned to additive manufacturing (AM) as a potential solution.
AM is an attractive technology for process improvement within the U.S. military “as a way to increase availability and save costs by quickly producing small replacement parts onsite instead of waiting for the supply chain to send equipment far off.”  The recent history of AM initiatives within the military has been characterized by pilot programs designed to test the feasibility of this technology without going all-in on the investment.
Since 2013, the Army has installed three Expeditionary Lab Mobile (ELM) boxes at remote outposts in Afghanistan. “The 20-foot container comes equipped with 3D printers, computer-assisted milling machines, and laser, plasma, and water cutters, along with common tools like saws and welding gear. Parts can be made of plastic, steel, and aluminum. With a generator, heating and cooling systems, and satellite communications all manned by two specially trained engineers, the 10-ton ELM is effectively a digital fabrication workshop in a box.” 
The Navy is also currently investing in pilot projects to reap the benefits of AM, including on my own ship, the USS ESSEX (LHD 2). “The U.S. Navy already has 3D printers aboard ships and has used them to produce customized drones aboard the United States Ship (USS) Essex while underway. The availability of the 3D printer allowed the USS Essex crew to save space by only carrying the electronic components and then “print” highly customizable, mission specific components of the drone as needed. This capability can further reduce the requirement to carry critical electronic components since the printers can now produce them as well.” 
Military leadership has clearly bought in to the notion that AM will be key to military success in the near future. Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, said just last month, “I think you’ll see in the next year … you’ll see additive manufacturing be the kind of the headline of how far we’ve come with efficiencies … out in the field.” 
However, while these pilot programs have been interesting to military leaders, no concrete plans are in place for a long-term broad-based rollout of AM technology. According to Lt. Benjamin Kohlmann, a fighter pilot and member of the Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), “Additive manufacturing has to get to the point where a part printed on the machine has the same strength and overall properties that a cast part has,” he said. “In some cases that is the case today. In others, in many more cases, it’s not…. Tensile and strength ratings don’t meet what’s required for high-stress environments.”  Indeed, the term “mil-spec” has come to signify the ultimate in ruggedness, and current transportable additive manufacturing platforms may not be ready to meet the stringent demands of combat equipment, where a failed part can result in loss of life.
In order to cross the chasm between an attractive future technology and one that is ready to be implemented in a broad rollout across deployed forces of the U.S. Military, it is imperative that the Department of Defense (DoD) immediately begin working directly with defense contractors to procure systems that have an initial system design that incorporates additively manufactured repair parts.
While defense contractors are wary of this, as repair parts logistics tails can add up to a significant portion of a particular program’s profit, the DoD should form contractual agreements whereby defense contractors that own these designs can be compensated on a license-fee model, so that each time a data file is used to print a part in the field, the company earns a fee.
In the medium term, it is imperative that additive manufacturing technology progress to a point at which printing platforms are modular, small enough to fit in logistics transport boxes, and accurate enough to meet stringent mil-spec standards.
This proposed approach raises a few important open questions that are as of yet unresolved:
- Would the economics of a license-fee system for AM-made parts be cost-efficient?
- With a security environment increasingly susceptible to data breaches, how do you ensure that military technology is safeguarded against hacking and therefore reproduction when you send design files over the internet?
 Werner, Ben. “Better Logistics, 3D Printing Will Quickly Return Navy and Marine Corps Aircraft to Service.” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 8, 2018. [https://news.usni.org/2018/10/08/37127], accessed November 2018.
 Hill, David. “3D Printing on the Frontlines – Army Deploying $2.8M Mobile Fabrication Labs.” Singularity Hub, February 28, 2013. [ https://singularityhub.com/2013/02/28/3d-printing-on-the-frontlines-army-deploying-2-8m-mobile-fabrication-labs/], accessed November 2018.
 Begley, Leslie D. “Increasing Capabilities and Improving Army Readiness through Additive Manufacturing technologies.” U.S. Army War College, January 4, 2017. [http://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/3389.pdf], accessed November 2018.
 Werner, “Better Logistics, 3D Printing Will Quickly Return Navy and Marine Corps Aircraft to Service.”
 Stevenson, Brittany. “U.S. Navy Installs 3D Printer on their First Ship, The USS ESSEX.” 3DPrint.Com, April 23, 2014. [https://3dprint.com/2554/uss-essex-3d-printer-navy/], accessed November 2018.