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3D printing in the Marine Corps: An industry of untapped potential

February 26, 2019

This report originally publishes at marines.mil.

1st Lt. Ryan McCormic sat in the middle of his 3D printing laboratory watching as the honeycombs, slowly but surely, took form. Honeycombs, the colloquial nickname attached to the filters that keep reflections on scope lenses from giving away Marine positions, can make the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

McCormic, the motor transport officer for 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (V-2/7), has established a 3D printing workspace in a small room above the motor pool workshop.
 
“3D printing, more formally known as additive manufacturing, is the process of starting from nothing and building up from it,” stated McCormic. “Generally speaking you can build anything plastic that you want or even in some cases anything that’s rubber.”

McCormic first realized the possibilities of 3D printing when he had an idea to reconfigure an ammo can to create a more diverse piece of workout equipment.

McCormic contacted 1st Maintenance Battalion on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in search of this capability but was told ‘We can’t do that but there are opportunities for your Marines and yourself to learn to print anything you’d like.’

“That ended up with us getting our own 3D printer from our regiment and by trial and error I started learning the process myself and teaching other Marines,” said McCormic. “We thought the easiest thing to print would be a door handle because with a lot of the soft back Humvee’s that we have, the interior door handles break.”

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“Once I made the first part I thought ‘Wow, I can do so much more with this,’” McCormic expressed.

At first glance, having the ability to 3D print a door handle may not seem so groundbreaking. However, with the right initiative and equipment, McCormic could help improve infantry battalions across the Marine Corps.

“One of the big things is, when I was deployed on a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force last year, it took a while for parts to get out to certain [locations],” McCormic recalled.

The amount of time it takes to replace something in a deployed environment could be anywhere from days to weeks, which can leave vehicles or weapons out of service for an extended amount of time.

In addition to substantially decreasing the wait time on repairing equipment while deployed, additive manufacturing could also cut back spending while in garrison. For example, honeycombs can be 3D printed for less than a dollar—a micro fraction of the retail price.

“One of my plans is that we take our 3D printer with us on [deployment] and utilize it in country when somebody tells us that we have a dead vehicle or a [faulty] weapon,” said McCormic. “We bring this 3D printer and instead of possibly having a 2-3 week wait time for the part, we can print it right there.”

With V-2/7 being the only infantry battalion on the west coast conducting in-house 3D printing, McCormic’s main goal at the moment is gaining the attention of other infantry battalions who may benefit from additive manufacturing.

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What started off as a simple idea has transcended into a very tangible program with endless potential.

“I’m very fortunate here at V-2/7—my entire command deck and every person I’ve talked to is extremely supportive of my use of 3D printing,” said McCormic. “I definitely would give thanks to all the units out there that really supported us from the unit level of commanders saying ‘This is a great idea, I think you should run with it,’ down to the Lance Corporals that have been showing me how to do certain things with 3D printing that I would otherwise never know.”

Years ago, the Commandant of the Marine Corps pushed guidance promoting innovation and calling for disruptive thinkers throughout the Marine Corps. Programs like the Commandant’s Innovation Challenge create forums that challenge Marines to bring their best ideas to light.

McCormic has answered the Commandant’s call by submitting a number of innovative ideas pertaining to additive manufacturing and the positive effects it could potentially hold for the Marine Corps.

“Sometimes the solution to your problem is right at your fingertips,” said McCormic. “You just have to know where to go to start solving that problem.” 

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