Additive manufacturing 'big part' of Army future, AMC commander says

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 06, 2016) -- Take a walk through Best Buy or Microcenter, and you'll likely find a 3D printer there making some sort of bauble out of extruded plastic. Army leaders say that kind of additive manufacturing technology has a role in the future of Army logistics and supply.

"I'm a huge advocate," said Gen. Gustave Perna, the new commander of Army Materiel Command. "I believe that our two greatest things that we can really make advancement on are robotics and additive manufacturing. I think there is great strength in additive manufacturing."

Perna spoke, Oct. 5, at the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, alongside Katrina McFarland, who serves as the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

He said additive manufacturing could find a home in two places within the Army of the future. At the strategic level, he said, it would work at depots, and with Army prepositioned stocks.

"We can use it to reduce the supply chain requirements and help us ensure that we get the products moving through our lines in a timely manner," he said. "I think that would be powerful for us. We have to take the depot workload, and really operationalize it to the requirement, and connect it to the sustainment readiness model. I think additive manufacturing will help us there."

Additive manufacturing might also be found forward-deployed, to provide on-demand fulfillment of Soldier and commander needs, without having to depend on resupply missions.

"Where do we put it on the battlefield to eliminate supply chain requirements? For example, put something in a convoy?" he said. "Or reduce the time it takes to repair something that we know is down. Truthfully, I believe we have to work through that. We have to come to consensus on the business rules for that. We have to understand the impact to supply chains and support requirements, and then we have to direct the execution."

One could easily imagine a future where any part a Soldier needs in the field, to fix a vehicle, for instance, could be produced by that Soldier in the field -- without the need to call in delivery from higher headquarters or a supply depot through the use of a convoy. That capability would reduce the number of Soldiers put in harm's way.

Getting to that future, though, will require some advance planning, Perna said. In particular, the Army will need to work with industry on the intellectual property rights for the things it might want to manufacture on-demand in the field.

"Up front, in the acquisition process, we'll have to come to terms with owning the intellectual property for the things we've purchased," he said. "If we don't own the intellectual property, we won't be able to really utilize the additive manufacturing to its fullest capability."

Perna also commented on the Strategic Portfolio Analysis and Review, or SPAR, recently undertaken by the Army's G-8. The SPAR will look at 780 Army equipment programs, and through modeling and simulation, evaluate their relative contribution to the Army's warfighting capability.

Output from that review will be used to inform decisions by the chief of staff of the Army and the secretary of the Army about the futures of some of those programs.

"I see great advantage of this initiative," Perna said. "It's about looking at the programs in depth, and then understanding how do we create space to give the secretary and chief more maneuver room to bring the right programs in. I think the SPAR will allow us to present information to the secretary and the chief so they can make decisions; more importantly, not what are we going to do, but what are we not going to do. For us it's about presenting the information so that they understand, so they have courses of action, they understand the risk, and then they will make the decision and we will execute it."

Another recent development at Headquarters Department of the Army that affects Perna's AMC, is the Rapid Capabilities Office. The new office is meant to fill a gap in acquisition timelines between what the Rapid Equipping Force is capable of -- fewer than six months delivery -- and what traditional acquisition can do, which is typically longer than five years.

The Rapid Capabilities Office brings something else to the table that hasn't been there before, which is the involvement of both the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff.

"If it's something that's high risk, and it's an enterprise issue: that really needs the senior leadership's direct focus, immediate focus," said McFarland. "We want to know that we can actually see the progress, and pull in that decision on risk right to the senior leadership, those that would get held accountable for that issue's failure or success. We want to pull that to that level."

Key focus areas now for the Rapid Capabilities Office are position navigation timing, electronic warfare, advanced protection systems and cyber capabilities.

"We know and we have had quite a bit of dialogue in history that shows us those are areas of concern at the Army enterprise level," McFarland said. "So the focus is along that area. Try to focus on a one-to-five-year, get it out. Focus on the high priorities to the enterprise, get our partnerships on the floor together: AMC, the G-2, all the folks that are immediate players of the senior leadership, to advise the secretary and the chief on why or what that risk equation is that they can deliberate on."