Making spares in the field

Waiting for spare parts may no longer be an issue for the U.S. Marine Corps thanks to the experimental X-FAB (expeditionary fabrication) facility which is a self-contained, transportable additive manufacturing lab that will make quick work of replacement and repair part fabrication. Deployable with battalion-level Marine maintenance units, the 20×20ft (6×6m) shelter is collapsible for easier transport and houses four 3-D printers, a scanner and computer-aided design software system.

The X-FAB container (Photo credit: USMC)

X-FAB will also enable us to better support Marines by getting platforms back in the fight faster,” said Master Sgt. Carlos Lemus, staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the Additive Manufacturing and Innovation Cell with 2nd Maintenance Battalion.. “We are looking to exploit this capability, because it has the potential to cut out the time it takes to order and receive parts; instead of waiting weeks or a month for a part, our machinists can get the part out by the end of the day.”

The three-dimensional scanner to digitalise parts (Photo credit: USMC)

Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) and Marine Corps Installations and Logistics teamed up with machinists from the 2nd Maintenance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in July to conduct a field user evaluation of a prototype X-FAB. The evaluation will continue until the end of this month, enabling Marines to test the technology and provide feedback on its capabilities to procurement officials.

The portable additive printing equipment (Photo credit: USMC)

Additive manufacturing is perfectly suited for the machinist community’s mission,” said Ed Howell, programme manager for Supply and Maintenance Systems at MCSC. “We don’t know where the technology will take us, but this is a great opportunity to find out what Marines think about it and explore the viability of additive manufacturing for the C7912 Shop Equipment, Machine Shop.

Shop Equipment, Machine Shop—also known as SEMS—is a deployable shelter equipped with a milling machine, lathe and other tools to quickly repair damaged vehicle parts, weapons and other equipment. The concept is to field X-FAB as a complementary capability for Corps’ intermediate-level maintenance shops that already use SEMS.

In addition to providing an expeditionary additive manufacturing capability, X-FAB can potentially reduce the maintenance battalion’s logistics footprint by eliminating the need to transport large amounts of spare parts, said Master Sgt. Carlos Lemus, staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the Additive Manufacturing and Innovation Cell with 2nd Maintenance Battalion.

Adjusting one of the printers (Photo credit: USMC)

X-FAB gives Marines a way to innovate, and make and create their own solutions – a unique capability that is not available to forward-deployed Marines now, said Lt. Col. Howie Marotto, Additive Manufacturing lead at Marine Corps Installations and Logistics.

In a contested environment where ships cannot easily land, or airplanes cannot necessarily fly in and deliver goods, Marines need a way to support themselves—at least temporarily,” Marotto said. “The deployable X-FAB would give them another outlet to supply themselves until the regular logistics or supply chain can support them. In some cases, they can even create a capability they didn’t have before, like 3-D-printed drones.

The 4.7 tonne, fully equipped X-FAB shelter runs on generator or shore power, and takes a team of four Marines two to three hours to set up.