Makers On the Front Lines: The Army REF’s Ex Labs
What do a fresh look at what “logistics” means, the ongoing electronics revolution, new manufacturing techniques, and the social norms and movements arising from these trends, have in common? Within the US Army, the answer is the Rapid Equipping Force’s new Expeditionary Lab (“Ex Lab”), which incorporates and fosters those trends on the front lines of combat.
The EX Factor
In simple terms, Expeditionary Labs are containerized low-volume mini-factories with an accompanying power module, and satellite communications. Inside, Ex Labs feature a small 5-axis CNC machine, lathe and welding/ soldering equipment, a 3D printer for fast production of parts, sewing and kit work, and basic facilities for assembling and diagnosing electronics.
Outside, they feature an attached generator module; the next version will be a hybrid generator/ solar/ battery module that builds on USMC and US Army experiments at Afghan Forward Operating Bases. When demand is low enough for supplementary power to keep up, off goes the generator.
The 3rd component is the most important, and consists of 4 people. One is a combat soldier who accompanies field units on missions, in order to discover needs, evaluate options, and get feedback about fielded items. A pair of engineers are accompanied by a former Special Forces operator, who adds a constant presence with deep field experience to discussions and designs.
Need a radar rain shroud? Ok, try this one. How about a custom designed sensor that includes motion detection, a microprocessor, GPS, and a radio, in order to monitor roads, buildings, or other specific items of interest? They built that. They can build more, but they aren’t really about volume production, and would rather use their satellite reachback to send out the plans and get lot production handled elsewhere.
If you define logistics as the art and science of getting materiel to a place where it can be effective, the 21st century has a few new wrinkles for you. If manufacturing can be widely dispersed and networked, it becomes possible to move information about a thing at nearly zero cost, then produce it at or near its locus of effectiveness.
Logistics as we currently understand it is never going away, but if you think in these terms, it becomes easier to understand the buzz around hyped new technologies like 3D printing/ Additive Manufacturing, the rapid miniaturization and plummeting cost of advanced 5-axis CNC milling machines, and the growing popularity of social phenomena like “Maker’s Fairs.”
It’s true that the current state of these technologies doesn’t allow them to replace conventional manufacturing, and isn’t expected to do so for a few decades at least. But that isn’t the point.
Instead, the REF’s Ex Labs offer these technologies a beachhead, using them to perform important tasks that can’t be done any other way. A pair are currently deployed to Afghanistan, and another is in Fort Belvoir, VA.
The next step may be even more revolutionary, as Ex Labs serve as hubs for the REF’s new ArmyCoCreate.com online initiative. Think of it as a focused, facilitated kind of crowdsourcing from qualified audiences. The REF is adding a very strong form of feedback loop with this step, tapping straight into the heart of a generation that has grown up online, leans toward entrepreneurship, and is coming of age amid Maker Fairs.
A Pleasantly Disruptive Future?
During his AUSA presentation, new REF Director Col. Silwa was asked about the future of these technologies within the Army supply chain. Volume production isn’t within reach yet, but what about smaller spares that are only needed occasionally? Could a larger or more advanced variant serve the front lines as a provider of those spares, cutting them out of the logistics chain and reducing repair down-times?
Silwa replied that Army Material Command has already fielded an initial stab at this, with their Mobile Parts Hospital. He added that if people can afford 3D Printing machines in their home, it’s not unimaginable that we could see them at lower echelons in the Army. The challenges probably won’t be technology, so much as communications for reachback to huge libraries of parts plans, and questions about what plans the Army is and isn’t willing to store on site.
If so, Ex Labs will act as carriers for a standard disruptive technology pattern, which starts out with significant deficits vs. conventional options, but develops at a faster pace and begins moving up the value chain.
Makers, take your marks….