The U.S. Army continues to develop its decade old MPH (Mobile Parts Hospital) concept for instant fabrication of parts in a combat zone. The latest version, called Ex Lab (Expeditionary Lab), is more compact and relies more on 3-D parts builders (3-D printers) and operators trained to help users come up with designs for components that don’t yet exist. It’s often the case that troops discover the need for a new component or improved replacement part for their equipment. In the past this request had to go back to the original factory for development and manufacturing. But with the software and equipment available now, as well as satellite data links to factories, it is possible to get this work done quickly in the combat zone. Thus, the new name for what is essentially MPH 3.0.
The MPH was developed when the army realized that the easiest and quickest way to get the many rarely requested, but vital, replacement parts to the troops was to manufacture the parts in the combat zone. After September 11, 2001, this led to the construction of a portable parts fabrication system called MPH, which 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. By 2010, there were four MPH systems in service, two of them in Afghanistan. Since then two more have been built, for under $2 million each. In the last decade MPHs have manufactured over 150,000 parts on the spot saving lots of time, shipping expense, and aggravation for troops needing the item. This saved days, or weeks, that it would take to order the part from the manufacturer. 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 had a 3-D part builder, which uses metal dust and a laser to build a part. This was MPH 2.0.
U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) then built their own, more ambitious, version of MPH in 2009. This was the MTC (Mobile Technology Complex) that could fix more complex and exotic gear (which SOCOM has a lot of), modify their special gear, or even create something new. SOCOM sent most of their MTCs to Afghanistan to see how effective they would be at improving the readiness of equipment, and the usefulness of being able to modify existing gear, and build new stuff on the spot. The MTC was a modified (with some new gear) version of the decade old U.S. Army MPH. This in turn led to Ex Labs.
The key to making this work originally 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 computer controlled machine tools can use the CAD file to automatically create the part. 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.
All these instant parts builder operations tended to be staffed and open 24/7. The demand for critical parts happened round the clock in a combat zone and it was often a matter of life or death to get the part as quickly as possible. This has eliminated many of the “spare parts crises” where large quantities of equipment in a combat zone would be unavailable because a few parts were found to wear out more quickly than anticipated in combat. When that sort of thing happens now the MPH can get parts to the troops quickly while the factory is alerted to produce more and air freight them to the combat zone as soon as they can.