WASHINGTON: Why are the Marines in love with 3D printing? Like most romances, it starts with the small things, things too small for the conventional supply system to manage, like a two-cent plastic button that preempts a $11,000 repair. Recently, Neller met a young corporal with a 3D printer: “Now they can print a button for two cents.” Neller’s No. 2, Gen. Glenn Walters, has his own longtime love affair with 3D printing. “As 3D printing spreads, it is going to change how the Marine Corps contracts for supplies, Neller warned National Defense Industrial Association members.”Many of our vendors use additive manufacturing to build stuff for us, and my question to them is, well, if you can print this why can’t I just print it? Neller and Walters envision a future in which Marine units routinely print many spare parts and small items of equipment on the spot – maybe even the mini-UAVs that Neller is now issuing to every rifle squad. Instead of buying drones out of the procurement accounts, for example, Walters suggested, “These small UAVs, these small things, they need to be more consumable – buy them in O&M.”. Why are the Marines so much more visibly enthused about 3D printing than, say, the Army? It’s in part because of personalities: Neller and Walters have seized on the idea. As the entire military moves away from big bases like in Iraq to “Distributed operations” in multiple domains, the other branches may fall in love with 3D printing too.

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