USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) --
ATLANTIC OCEAN— “The way it’s always been done” is not good enough for the U.S. Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Marines embarked on U.S. Navy ships traditionally have limited options when it comes to repairing equipment – either order a new part from the manufacturer, which could take months, or do their best with what they have.
The Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) with the 26th MEU are challenging the status quo with a new system. For the first time, the MEU is deploying with a 3D-printer.
Since its implementation in the Marine Corps, the 3D-printer is revolutionizing the way Marines conduct maintenance.
“We are the first MEU to deploy with a 3D-printer, which allows us to repair vehicles and parts much quicker than they normally would be on previous MEUs,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Seth Kaiser, the Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 26 maintenance officer. “We can replace a part in a matter of hours, whereas it could take weeks or even months to replace the same part in the past.”
The quick turnaround can bolster readiness, a hallmark of the MEU – a crisis response force by design.
“One of the MEU Commanding Officer’s biggest priorities is the readiness of the MEU,” said Sgt. Aaron Carter, the Motor Transportation maintenance chief with the unit. “This printer gives us the capability to exponentially speed up readiness, which makes us that much more prepared for whatever mission it is that we need to accomplish.”
Anyone with the MEU, from grunts on the ground to mechanics working on helicopters, can make requests for parts to be made.
“We are able to design and print parts that are found all throughout the Marine Air Ground Task Force,” Kaiser said. “We have made a few parts already for the Air Combat Element and are currently working on some projects for the Maritime Raid Force.”
Although the 26th MEU has only been underway for a few weeks, the 3D-printer has already been making a difference in operations aboard ship.
“The ACE had mounts for a gun that kept breaking, so instead of them trying to put together something that may or may not work from the materials that they had, I made a bracket with the printer," said Cpl. Christopher Bigham, a machinist with the CLB. “The measurements are more exact this way, and since we have the blueprint saved now, if it breaks at some point in the future, we can print another one up in a matter of hours.”
Due to the fact that the 3D-printer is still relatively new to the Marine Corps, every design made during the deployment will be logged.
“We save every blueprint that we create so we can make a database and send those blueprints back at Camp Lejeune and have them for future MEUs,” Bigham said. “This way, Marines in the future can just download the file and print it, instead of having to design it themselves.”
Innovations like the 3D-printer can be key to improving the readiness of large and small units alike. It can be the difference between an aircraft being stuck on the ground for weeks, if not months, and getting it back in the air in the span of a few hours. The 3D-printer is a tool to help Marines be ready for any fight, whether in the air, on land or sea.