Defense IT

Fab Lab can help Navy get creative with repairs at sea

The military has for several years now adapted new technologies such as 3D printing to enhance its ability to make repairs and maintain equipment when deployed. It saves a lot of time and money if maintenance teams can 3D print a broken part or missing tool, rather than requisitioning the part and waiting for delivery, or waiting to put in to port.

In many cases, they just pull up a computer-aided design drawing of the part and use that to manufacture it digitally. But what if a repair or other job requires something that’s not already in the manual? That’s part of the idea behind the Navy’s addition of a Fab Lab—which stands for fabrication laboratory—at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC) in Norfolk, Va.

The lab, being installed as part of DARPA’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach Two (MENTOR2) program, aims to provide state-of-the-art training in fabrication technology, along with tools necessary to make a greater range of repairs in harsh environments, so that personnel can design, as well as fabricate, what they need, according to DARPA.

The Navy’s current machine and fabrication shops can be limited in their access to adaptive manufacturing and design expertise for jobs such as unmanned aerial vehicles in the field or ship systems at sea. MENTOR2 wants to change that.

Maintenance crew members, known as maintainers, “are pros at adapting what they have to get the mission done,” said Gill Pratt, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “But beyond the need to facilitate quick repairs, we hope that by training sailors on Fab Lab equipment they’ll be better able to convert their innovative ideas into designs and rapid prototypes that could be certified for wider fleet use.”

Fab Labs, which are overseen by the Fab Foundation, grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms in 2001. Today, the Fab Lab Network comprises 450 Fab Labs in 55 countries, operating as a collaborative affiliation for sharing information.

A Fab Lab includes laser cutters for 2D and 3D structures, a sign cutter that that plots in copper for antennas and sign routers, 3D printers, high-speed microcontrollers for on-site rapid circuit prototyping, digital design tools that use open-source software, and other tools.

By opening a Fab Lab of its own, the Navy not only gets better-trained personnel, but the chance to collaborate with other labs, while drawing on MIT’s off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, and open source software.

And the lab at MARMC could be just the beginning. “Prototype component designs potentially could be shared digitally across the Navy, and perhaps result in Fab Labs being established in other military locations,” Pratt said.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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