3-D printed grenade launcher only tip of future manufacturing possibilities for Army

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 19, 2017) -- Soldiers will probably not be 3-D printing entire weapons in theater anytime soon. Instead, they'll continue to bring weapons into theater the old way: slung over their shoulder. But the Army is exploring 3-D printing technology that promises to make it easier for Soldiers to complete their missions without being stymied by broken parts.

At a Department of Defense-sponsored "Lab Day," May 18, at the Pentagon, James L. Zunino, a materials engineer with the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, showed off a 3-D-printed grenade launcher the Center had manufactured in its lab.

Like parts made on the 3-D printers that are common in many electronics stores today, most of the launcher was constructed of plastic. But the barrel was made of aluminum and was also 3-D printed using "laser sintering." In that process, powdered aluminum serves as the raw material, and a laser pointed at the powder heats up certain portions to melt it into a solid. Using this process, the printers were able to generate a complete all-metal barrel for the launcher, along with the plastic upper.

While Zunino said it's unlikely the Army will manufacture entire grenade launchers in theater, it is a valid possibility that parts could be manufactured to modify existing weapons to make them fit the needs of Soldiers who will use them.

"It's for things the Soldiers could modify for themselves, you could do mass customization, you could print in the field," he said. "If you prefer a 45-degree grip on the front ... you could print that in the field. Or if you wanted to use a 90-degree grip, you could have that. Then you can actually tailor a weapon for how the Soldier wants to use and operate it. If you want to add more Picatinny rails, to add your flashlight mounts, or different scopes, you could easily do that."

While printed weapons are still in the developmental stages of production, Soldiers may soon see the Army's Rapid Fabrication via Additive Manufacturing on the Battlefield capability in the field, also called RFAB.

With the RFAB, the Army has assembled several commercial 3-D printing technologies into one portable facility that allows users to manufacture parts on-the-fly to repair broken gear in the theater. That way, those Soldiers can continue their mission and not have to wait for the logistics supply chain to deliver new parts.

The RAFB capability has already been to the Army Warfighter Assessment at Fort Bliss, Texas. Last October, it demonstrated the ability there to print up treads and flippers for the robots used to disable IEDs.

"Sometimes they have a hard time getting those parts fielded forward," Zunino said. "So we are telling Soldiers to make it, to get through the mission."

Timothy Phillis, an engineer with Armament Research Development and Engineering Center at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, had a tiny plastic handle with him in the Pentagon courtyard. He said the part is worth about $8,000 -- sort of.

"This is a handle on a nitrogen purge pump," he said. "When this handle breaks, and it breaks frequently, it's an $8,000 handle because the entire pump has to be replaced. So a unit got eight of them in and seven had handles that were broken. So they took the eighth one, they took the 3-D scanner that's in RFAB, they scanned the good one, and then they printed the other seven. So now, from a readiness perspective, they're not one-of-eight -- they're eight-of-eight ready."

Phillis also offered another example of 3-D printing enhancing readiness at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where a forklift in use had a lifting pin break. A replacement part was put on order. But to keep the mission running -- and the forklift running -- operators there opted to use 3-D printing to make a new pin, at least as a temporary stop-gap solution. Six months later, he said, they are still operating with the 3-D printed pin. The actual part, he said, "is still on back order."

An improved version of the RAFB, updated with input from Soldiers, will be used at the upcoming Pacific Pathways in Japan and Thailand this summer. The RFAB will also go to Joint Warfighter Assessment 18 in Europe next spring, Phillis said.

Also coming to RFAB, Zunino said, is "Raptor," the name for a software catalog of nearly 500 commonly-broken parts that have already been stored as digital files for 3-D printing.

"It's a repository for additive parts for tactical and operational readiness," Zunino said, as he demonstrated the software using a laptop computer.

"If you are looking for your part, and you don't know the exact model number of the piece that is broken, that's okay. You know that you have a PackBot, and you can click on the PackBot picture. And you know the flipper system is bad, and it will bring up all the components you can print."

On the screen, there were several pictures of systems, and after clicking a system, several pictures appeared of commonly-broken parts that could be 3-D printed by just clicking on them.

"We're trying to get as close to click-to-print as possible for Soldiers," Zunino said.

The Raptor system appeared to be an easy-to-use interface that would allow Soldiers to quickly find the part they need and have it manufactured on-sight. But the 3-D printing capability is not meant to replace traditional ordering, Zunino said.

"You're still going to order the part number or the NSN to order a replacement, but you can print the temporary to complete your mission immediately, while the logistics chains and supply chain catches up with you," he said.

Both the RFAB and the Raptor parts catalog will be available for viewing at the Pacific Pathways in August and September.