Breaking new ground in additive manufacturing (AM), researchers from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS)’s Consortium for Additive Manufacturing Research and Education (CAMRE) successfully executed in-flight 3D printing aboard a U.S. military aircraft for the first time. The demonstration, which saw the creation of a medical arm cast during a flight on a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, was part of a Marines training exercise held in Twentynine Palms, California.
A tiltrotor military aircraft, the MV-22 Osprey, combines the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range of a turboprop plane. With its ability to reach over 260 knots and a combat radius of 426 nautical miles, it is instrumental in assault support missions due to its speed, range, and payload capacity. Innovative features like a glass cockpit and fly-by-wire control system further bolster its safety and responsiveness, making it a unique asset for Marines operations.
“I see this as revolutionary, being able to print on the move,” said Spencer Koroly, the Naval Information Warfare Center engineer who developed the printer known as the Advanced Manufacturing Operational System (AMOS). “Being able to print on the move represents a vital capability for rapid response in contested logistics scenarios.”
The demonstration was a collaboration with the Marine Innovation Unit (MIU) and the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. The medical cast was created in-flight thanks to a 3D scan of a Marine’s arm and generative design software to create the blueprint of the medical cast.
CAMRE’s successful in-flight 3D printing follows its previous accomplishment of deploying a 3D liquid metal printer on the USS Essex during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in 2022, a biennial international military exercise hosted by the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet.
Commenting on the potential of additive manufacturing for the military, CAMRE’s Program Manager, Chris Curran, stated, “We are in a unique position to rapidly support the joint force and accelerate the adoption of advanced manufacturing.”
The successful demonstration took place on June 21 as part of an integrated training exercise at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. In an impressive display of technological innovation, a medical cast was 3D printed using the AMOS while the aircraft was engaged in a variety of operations, including taxiing, takeoff, and in-flight maneuvers. The exercise featured operating forces from the Marine Forces Reserve, the I Marine Expeditionary Force, and the 3D Marine Aircraft Wing to show a distributed manufacturing model in a challenging logistics setting.
Koroly described the operation as a milestone, stating, “Nothing is more expeditionary than printing medical devices and swarm robotics in the back of an aircraft.” This achievement emphasizes the revolutionary potential of in-flight 3D printing, which could usher in a new era of mobility and on-the-go manufacturing.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Radigan of the MIU, who also worked on the operational testing, shared his vision for the future of 3D printing: “We are just scratching the surface on the capabilities that will come from being able to 3D print in flight. Dozens of printers being installed in a modular fashion aboard aircraft bring the ability for mobile production at a scale we have not experienced before.”
Beyond this demonstration, the mission of CAMRE is to rapidly provide results to the warfighter and accelerate the adoption of advanced manufacturing for the joint force. Their work also involves providing education and certifications to increase the talent pool for the joint force, in addition to validating concepts through operational exercises.
This groundbreaking work builds on the NPS’s commitment to advancing the operational effectiveness, technological leadership, and warfighting advantage of the naval service through defense-focused graduate education and interdisciplinary research.
Through its Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER), the NPS has also been involved in various initiatives, such as exploring the application of 3D printing in creating unmanned systems like drones. Furthermore, NPS students and faculty have been investigating the use of AM to quickly generate essential equipment in remote or combat locations. For example, one project includes a student’s development of a method for 3D printing full-scale submarine hull sections, aiming to expedite and reduce the cost of submersible production.
Overall, the NPS’ exploration and advancement of AM technologies highlights the potential these processes hold for military operations. With a successful demonstration of in-flight 3D printing aboard an MV-22 Osprey, the researchers have set the stage for a new era of on-the-move manufacturing and rapid response capabilities. As these pioneering efforts evolve, they promise to redefine the landscape of expeditionary warfare, opening new roads for logistical support, field reparability, and mission adaptability.