August 14, 2010: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has adopted an old U.S. Army concept to create mobile workshops (MTCs or Mobile Technology Complex) that can fix exotic gear (which SOCOM has a lot of), modify their special gear, or even create something new. The MTC is a modified (with new some gear) version of the decade old U.S. Army MPH (Mobile Parts Hospital).
The MPH was developed when the army realized that the easiest way to get the many rarely requested, but vital, replacement parts to the troops, was to manufacture the parts in the combat zone. In short order, this led to the construction of a portable parts fabrication system, called MPH, that fit into a standard 8x8x20 foot shipping container. The original version used two containers, but smaller equipment and more powerful computers eventually made it possible to use one container.
The key to making this work was the availability of computer controlled machine tools, which can take a block of the proper metal, and machine it into the desired part. The computer controlled machine tools have been around for decades, but the big breakthrough was the development of CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software for PCs in the 1980s, which made the process of designing, and then fabricating, a part much faster. The MPH has a high speed satellite data link, which enables it to obtain the CAD file for a part. Many CAD files are already stored in the MPH. Often, the MPH staff figure out a way to improve a part, based on the broken parts they see, and what the troops tell them.
There are four MPH systems in service, two of them in Afghanistan. A fourth is being built, at a cost of $1.5 million. In the last six years, MPHs have manufactured over 100,000 parts, on the spot. This saves days, or weeks, that it would take to order the part from the manufacturer, and the MPH part is usually a lot cheaper (because the air freight and manufacturer mark ups to pay for maintaining the part in inventory). The next version of the MPH has a 3-D part builder, which uses metal dust and a laser to build a part.
SOCOM is building eight of their MTCs and sending all of them to Afghanistan, to see how effective they will be at improving the readiness of equipment, and the usefulness of being able to modify existing gear, and build new stuff on the spot.