Logistics: Smaller, Lighter, Faster, Cheaper, Unexpected

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September 28, 2016: In the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has adopted another existing technology, the U.S. Army MPH (Mobile Parts Hospital) to shorten the development and field testing time for new weapons or equipment components. SOCOM is taking an existing innovation and taking it a bit further. SOCOM could always get away with that and the army and marines follow these projects closely because it usually results in something those outside SOCOM can use.

MPH itself began back in 2003 when the army created the first MPH based on using CAD (Computer Assisted Design) data for parts and new lightweight computer controlled machine tools to manufacture new parts as needed. MPH was very popular and that led to calls for upgrades. By 2013 MPH added 3-D printers and after that SOCOM noted that users (including some SOCOM personnel) were designing their own new parts and using MPHs to build them for immediate testing. A growing percentage of those new component designs worked and now SOCOM uses MPHs, or just a laptop and a 3-D printer (a mini-MPH) for non-metal parts. MPH is typical of how the U.S. military had been adopting new technology, especially since the 1970s.

It took the army a decade to developed and deploy a second and third generation of MPH. The 2013 version was actually called Ex Lab (Expeditionary Lab) and was more compact and relied 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 often 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.

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 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 first decade of use MPHs 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). MPH 2.0 had a 3-D part builder, which uses metal dust and a laser to build a part.

SOCOM 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 MPH 2.0. 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 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.

 


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