The U.S Army has been using mobile 3D printer labs, called Expeditionary Lab Mobile (ELM), which allow them to rapid-prototype upgrades to pieces of equipment.
Each 20-foot container comes equipped with 3D printers, a CNC milling machine, and laser, plasma and water cutters, along with conventional tools such as saws, routers and welding gear. This allows the Army engineers to create parts made from plastic, steel and aluminum. A generator, heating an cooling systems, and a satellite communications system mean that the 10-ton ELM can operate on its own without any external resources.
Two of these $2.8M labs have already been deployed in Afghanistan and are transported into the field via Chinook helicopters.The ELMs are not only intended to repair or remake damaged equipment, but also develop solutions that solve problems with equipment that soldiers in the field may encounter.
The ELMs have already had promising successes, one example of which is a modification to a flashlight to prevent it being accidentally turned on. This could cause issues for soldiers as the light could give away their position or just make the batteries run down.
The ELM engineers worked with soldiers to develop and a guard for the flashlight button that was 3D printed and immediately tested under field conditions. The parts made by the labs are only meant for short term use but there’s no reason why they these designs can’t be used as manufactured upgrades by the original equipment manufacturer.
The main benefit that the ELMs bring to the Army is the speed at which improvements can be made which bypass traditional Army procurement processes. Rather than the original manufacturer spending months designing, approving, manufacturing and distributing an updated design the 3D printer lab can affect the same update quickly in the field.
A third ELM is planned to be deployed in Afghanistan in June and beyond this they are considered useful for other scenarios, such as distaster relief and humanitarian programs.