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Marines' Abrams tanks successfully perform with 3D-printed impellers

By Allen Cone
Marines' Abrams tanks successfully perform with 3D-printed impellers
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Charles Matte, a machinist with 1st Maintenance Battalion, mills an impeller fan on a computer numerically controlled lathe machine in Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Oct. 17, 2017. In January 2019, Marine Corps Systems Command reviewed the results of 3D-printed impellers at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Photo by Cpl. Joseph Sorci/U.S. Marine Corps

April 8 (UPI) -- The U.S. Marines' M1A1 Abrams tanks have successfully performed with several 3D-printed impellers.

The Marine Corps Systems Command and other organizations reviewed the performance of impellers used on the tanks at Twentynine Palms, Calif., last December and January, according a Marines news release Thursday.

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After about 100 hours of testing on Abrams tanks during these exercises in Camp Pendleton in California, Marines at Twentynine Palms disassembled the impellers to check for unusual wear, leakage or other problems. None existed.

The Marines, like other military branches, see 3D printing as a quicker way replace worn-out original parts and spare the expense of creating special orders.

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"Call it a spare tire or a stop-gap solution,"Joseph Burns, technical lead for MCSC's Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell, said in a news release. "This can get you through a mission, through your training exercise or whatever may be critical at the time."

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On tanks, an impeller expels dust from the engine to keep the filters clean. But when the part begins to wear and tear, it might not pull enough air to function properly and reduce effectiveness.

A few years ago, Defense Logistics Agency did not have enough impalers to satisfy all orders with the Marine Corps and the Army.

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"At certain times, logistical issues can occur," said Tony Delgado, research and development program manager for additive manufacturing at DLA. "Sometimes, the part is not available right away or something happens with a vendor and a part cannot be provided immediately. This was one of those times where the part wasn't available."

And it can take from six to 10 months for the Marines to receive a part.

"Around that time, the Marine Corps had been provided with 3D printing additive manufacturing tools," Burns said. "And Marines were being encouraged to be innovative and develop prototype solutions to real-world problems. A young Marine identified the impeller and began exploring ways to 3D print this part."

MCSC collaborated with Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and DLA to check the the performance of the 3D printed impeller.

"Right now, we don't see any reason why the 3D-printed impeller is any less reliable than the OEM version," Burns said. "We plan to continue to collect operational hours on three 3D-printed impellers to better assess the long-term reliability of the part."

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Once the 10-page technical data package is finalized, the 3D-printed impeller will be fully qualified, tested and certified by the Marine Corps for use in the Abrams tank.

"We've involved engineers from Marine Corps Systems Command and the Army, and we've even had lawyers in some meetings to ensure there's no intellectual property infringement," Delgado said. "In terms of collaboration, this has been a great project."

In 2017, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry battalion in Camp Lejuene, N.C., became the first unit in the Corps to possess a 3D printer, using it to print various pieces of equipment.

"We're at the tip of the iceberg as to what capabilities this can bring," Capt. Justin Carrasco, the logistics officer for the battalion, said in a press release. "So right now, we're identifying different 3D-printed parts that can support the warfighter in the expeditionary environment."

In January, Huntington Ingalls delivered a 3D-printed pipe assembly to be installed on the USS Harry S. Truman and evaluated for one year on the aircraft carrier.

And earlier in January, a metallic 3D-printed part was installed on an operational F-22 Raptor at Hill Air Force Base in Utah for the first time.

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The 3D printing process has been used by private industry and government to make parts, including medical devices.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Construction Engineering Research Laboratory tested a 3-foot-wide foot bridge in Champaign, Ill. It was designed withstand 15,000 pounds.

It didn't crack under a hydraulic actuator until under the equivalent of nearly 45,000 pounds.

Marines helped built the bridge in December at Camp Pendleton in California and were in Champaign last to help test the slabs.

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