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US Marines 3D print a rocket headcap for mine-clearing missions

The US Marine Corps has successfully leveraged additive manufacturing to aid their mine-clearing missions, having 3D printed a headcap for a rocket motor used to detonate an M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC). 

The MICLIC is a rocket-projected explosive line charge that clears a path through minefields and other obstacles on the battlefield. 3D printing the headcap enabled the marines to overcome the costly and time-heavy drawbacks of traditional manufacturing techniques, and provide a more efficient method for producing the part.

“The process of 3D printing allows marines to create a physical object from a digital design,” said CWO2 Justin Trejo, a project officer with PM Ammo at Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC). “We essentially created a 3D printed product and incorporated it into a highly explosive system. The rocket motor fired off just as intended and the line charge detonated as it is supposed to, which was a significant moment for us.

“In the future, we’d like to attempt to 3D print the headcap with its nozzles attached.”

CWO2 Justin Trejo displays a 3D printed headcap for a rocket motor used to employ a M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge. Photo via Tonya Smith/US Marine Corps.
CWO2 Justin Trejo displays a 3D printed headcap for a rocket motor used to employ a M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge. Photo via Tonya Smith/US Marine Corps.

3D printing the headcap

The US Marine Corps has been championing the greater adoption of 3D printing for several years now, and has continued to explore the technology’s potential to improve processes, parts, lead times, and cost savings. 

The organization has previously leveraged the technology to aid the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of its F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, and has been used to produce temporary spare parts on missions by marine expeditionary units. The Marine Corps has also previously partnered with Texas-based construction firm ICON to 3D print a concrete vehicle hide structure in just 36 hours, with plans to adopt the technology more widely across the US’ Armed Forces to support military operations around the world. 

PM Ammo began exploring alternative production techniques for the MICLIC headcap in 2019, after identifying a need for a more efficient method for manufacturing the part. After extensive research, development, and prototyping, the team partnered with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Corona Divsion to produce the 3D printed component. 

The headcap was 3D printed in stainless steel before being tested at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. During the test event, the 3D printed headcap was fitted to a rocket motor that was used to successfully detonate a mine-clearing line charge. The success of the test confirmed the effectiveness of 3D printing within defense applications, and its potential for streamlining the production process of critical parts in order to save both time and money.

“The previous process of traditional manufacturing is outdated, while 3D printing is a more modern manufacturing technique,” said Caleb Hughes, an engineer at PM Ammo. “I truly believe 3D printing is the next generation of Marine Corps.”

According to Trejo, 3D printing has the potential to increase the Marines’ battlefield efficiency through enabling its warfighters to be “lighter and faster” when supporting various missions. 

“We’re able to create equipment parts and other assets for whatever particular mission we’re engaged in,” he added. “This 3D printed headcap represents the Marine Corps going above and beyond to support our Marines.”

Featured image shows the ICON and US marines' 3D printed concrete vehicle hide structure. Photo via ICON.
ICON and US marines’ 3D printed concrete vehicle hide structure. Photo via ICON.

Deploying AM for defense

In February, the US Department of Defense (DoD) released its first-ever additive manufacturing strategy to establish a common vision for the integration of 3D printing within the nation’s defense program. Despite concerns raised by an independent watchdog regarding “unnecessary cybersecurity risks”, the strategy formally lays out how the DoD plans to scale the technology’s deployment across its Armed Forces. 

Since then, the adoption of 3D printing across the US defense sector has continued to increase, with projects underway to develop methods for 3D printing high-strength alloys, qualifying corrosion-proof materials for maritime applications, and 3D printing optimized antenna components and continuous fiber drone wings, among other things. 

The DoD has also partnered with binder jet 3D printer manufacturer ExOne to develop a portable 3D printing factory to address spare part production in the field, and has commissioned the building of several specialized 3D printers. 

The US Air Force turned to MIT spin-out Inkbit to build three 3D printing systems for use at its bases in the US, and has also contracted circuit board fabrication specialist BotFactory to develop a customized fully-automated desktop electronics 3D printer that could save millions of dollars each year in procurement costs. Additionally, the Applied Science & Technology Research Organization (ASTRO America) has been tasked with developing an ultra-large-format metal 3D printer for the production of ground vehicles for the US Army.

Hull survivability and weight savings are crucial factors out in the field. Photo via Marine Corps.
Hull survivability and weight savings are critical factors out in the field. Photo via Marine Corps.

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Featured image shows CWO2 Justin Trejo displays a 3D printed headcap for a rocket motor used to employ a M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge. Photo via Tonya Smith/US Marine Corps.

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