From barracks to bridges and hard-to-find parts, the Marine Corps is pushing to fully integrate 3D printing technologies in the next three to four years and is looking to industry for new capabilities and assistance on data licensing guidelines.

Capt. Matthew Friedell, lead official for the Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell, told reporters Thursday the Marine Corps has already deployed 150 3D printing systems and is focused on working with partners to secure data rights as printing technology becomes more accessible.

Gunnery Sgt. Doug McCue, a machinist with the 2nd Maintenance Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, demonstrates the capabilities of a large-build 3-D printer in the X-FAB Facility Aug. 1. The X-FAB, or Expeditionary Fabrication, Facility is a self-contained, transportable additive manufacturing lab comprised of a 20-by-20-foot shelter, 3-D printers, a scanner and computer-aided design software system that can be used to fabricate repair and replacement parts in the field. The Marine Corps is exploring this expeditionary capability to expedite heavy equipment repairs in deployed environments. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kaitlin Kelly)

“We see in the next couple years it’s not about the technology, it’s the data management. How do we protect industry’s data? How do we ensure that we’re protecting our industrial base?” Friedell said.

Friedell said most 3D printing will revolve around allowing Marines in the field to quickly reproduce a small part that would otherwise be difficult to track down or missing entirely from the supply chain.

“We’re not talking about large-scale manufacturing of parts. We’re not making thousands of things. The gaps we’ve seen in the Marine Corps is when we need five of something and it’s nowhere in the supply system, and we’ve tried to go out to industry to have somebody make it. But if you’re asked to make five water pumps, there’s no profit to that,” Friedell said. “Sometimes a little bracket breaks and it turns out the last time that bracket was made was back in the 70’s and nobody makes it anymore.”

The Marine Corps views data access and management as the current “friction point” for advanced and additive manufacturing, according to Friedell.

Friedell said he envisions an eventual strategy of working with companies to buy data “credits,” like how current individual parts are purchased, to ensure vendors are being fairly compensated for the exact number of components the Marine Corps will print.

The Marine Corps has also worked with Johns Hopkins University over the last four years on a program to build a database on all components of replacement parts. Friedell added the database will be used to provide Marines with the necessary information and testing standards needed to reproduce harder-to-find parts.

While most of the currently fielded printers are designed to fit on desktops and used to print small plastic parts, the Marine Corps is working on two programs to test large machines for 3D printing metals.

The Logistics Combat Element’s X-FAB program is working on self-contained 3D printing facilities and Shop Equipment, and the Machine Shop (SEMS) effort focuses on deployable shelters equipped with advanced manufacturing tools.

The Marine Corps will continue building out SEMS capabilities while ultimately offering X-FAB as a secondary capability for intermediate-level maintenance units.

Officials are also testing large metal 3D printers at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Camp Pendleton in California and at Marine Corps Logistic Bases Albany and Barstow. Friedell said the machines are able to print 5 pounds of aluminum in an hour.

Friedeel noted the Marine Corps is likely to explore more opportunities with industry to expand its large metal printing efforts.

In January, officials also announced Marines had successfully 3D printed a concrete bridge in December.

“We have a very limited number of bridging assets, and once they’re used up you’ve got to start using local infrastructure. But if we can start making and designing our own onsite, customized to whatever gap we’re trying to cross, that flexibility is invaluable,” Friedell said.

The Marine Corps last August also completed a project to 3D print a complete set of barracks with concrete.