One of the less spoken about advantages of 3D printing is the portability of the equipment, a 3D printing service can be taken almost anywhere and a 3D printer is not only lighter and less space hogging than other options for quickly making parts or doing repairs in the middle of nowhere but also a lot lighter than carrying all of the spare parts you might need.
Use of 3D printing in space such as on the International Space Station has already been discussed where having a 3D printing service means that any part can be made so only a certain amount of material is needed rather than having to have at least one and sometimes several copies of each part, just in case. Also quickly re-designed parts to replace those that have failed and shown up a design flaw can be sent as a file from the earth up into space to be printed.
Space is just one hostile environment though where you can’t always take everything you need and where a 3D printing service can offer many benefits and the US Army are now sending 3D printers to be used in Afghanistan to be used for replacement parts for equipment used in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
For now the US Army are sending labs, these are self contained mini factories in a 20 foot container, not exactly the kind of thing you can carry along on missions but small enough that it can be moved quickly by road to a forward base where it is needed, or even lifted by helicopter.
The labs though have more than a simple entry level 3D printer that can only print in plastics and each lab costs around $2.8 million and contains a CNC machine and various other tools including routers, welders and saws to fabricate a variety of parts fast: the 3D printer though remains the quickest and easiest piece of equipment to use.
For now the US Army plans to use these Expeditionary labs to make new parts for use in mainly new equipment where problems occur when an item is first used in the field. This could be something relatively minor like a weapon’s sight that slowly comes loose with use and needs tightening up but it could be something like a gun’s loading mechanism that keeps jamming in the hot Afghanistan climate and renders newly issued weapons useless.
In the past parts would be sent back to the US along with engineers and sometimes soldiers who had experienced problems to discuss the problems and design new parts, taking months, now a prototype can be made and issued in hours using a 3D printing service and the other tools the lab has on board.
This could well be only the first time we will see a 3D printing service used in the military though, forces going into enemy territory and far from their bases may be unable to carry as many spare parts as they would like but one man could easily carry a collapsible lightweight 3D printer and materials as well as other kit; battery or solar power for it though could be more of an issue but not insurmountable.