May 05, 2022

Duckworth bill aims to boost Pentagon’s 3D-printing capabilities

Source: National Journal


As the Pentagon shifts its focus from the nearly two-decade fights in the Middle East to competition against adversaries like Russia and China, the ability for front-line American troops to resupply on the fly is of increasing importance.

On Wednesday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth introduced a bill directly aimed at boosting the Defense Department's use of bioindustrial manufacturing and 3D printing in order to give small, dispersed units more ways to resupply.

The bill would require the Defense secretary to design a development and implementation strategy for bioindustrial manufacturing and 3D printing.

“Our troops deserve access to the best technology to help them continue to do their jobs," Duckworth said on Wednesday. "And advanced manufacturing, like 3D printing and bioindustrial manufacturing, can really provide significant advantages for them, especially when they are downrange and they’re in a place where they may not be able to just call back to the supply people and say, ‘Hey, send me another piece of the XYZ part.’”

Ultimately, Duckworth says, she hopes the Pentagon would be able to develop biopolymers that can be used in 3D printers by troops conducting dispersed operations.

The military envisions potentially going up against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or an invasion of Taiwan by using relatively small units that are widely dispersed across Pacific islands and archipelagos.

Supplying those troops via ship or plane would be exceedingly difficult and dangerous given the Chinese armaments in the region, and the military is currently looking for alternative methods for front-line troops to get what they need.

The Marine Corps is currently developing a strategy it dubs 21st-century foraging that bolsters the ability of small units to use food, water, and even gas it buys from locals wherever it is deployed.

“The first thing about being able to handle a logistics enterprise support in a distributed environment is, need less,” then-Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, the current assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said in August 2021.

With improved 3D printing, the military would be able to build parts for helicopters, trucks, or weapons that they are not likely to find in the local economy.

Regardless of the enemy or the level of the fight, supply lines have long proven vulnerable, whether to improvised explosive devices in Iraq or naval strike missiles in the South China Sea, Duckworth said.

“The logistics lines were never easy,” Duckworth said about Iraq.

“Anything that we can do to reduce our reliance on long supply and logistic chains, it's going to help our troops be more deadly on the front lines and also will keep them from being exposed to unnecessary danger,” she added.

The advancement would also be useful for units training in the United States who may have their training cut short when a vital piece of equipment breaks and they are forced to rely on a slow procurement process to replace a key part.

Duckworth said that when she was in the National Guard she once had to rely on duct tape to hold her helicopter together as she flew home to Chicago from a training weekend at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

“Would I rather I had a 3D-printed collar for my loose fasteners?” Duckworth asked. “Hell, yeah. ... Give me the 3D-printed collar any day.”

Currently the bill’s only cosponsor is Sen. Thom Tillis, but Duckworth said she was confident that the legislation would gain traction in the Senate.

“I've had conversations with other members, but I’ve also had conversations with the DoD, and they’re on board with growing this capability,” she said.

By:  Philip Athey