Make me a tank: Army embraces 3D printing
Canada's Major Tom Batty, Officer Commanding of the Army Learning Support Centre (ALSC), 5th Division Support Group Gagetown, picks up Fredericton’s City Hall to show off the detail in the hands of the clock face in the tower, then sets the building back in place on its foundation.
Then he picks up the Justice Building across the street and slowly turns it on its side to show the level of detail in the brickwork over the front door. Next he lines up a convoy of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and Leopard 2 tanks.
It is not superhuman strength that lets Maj Batty accomplish these feats – but feats of human ingenuity working in combination with modern technology. The entire model of downtown Fredericton was built in Gagetown using innovative 3D printers and sits on a plywood board that is 2m x 3m square.
For those who remember The Friendly Giant children’s program on CBC TV, it is easy to imagine Maj Batty’s manipulation of these buildings.
A 12 city block section of Fredericton’s downtown core is represented accurately down to the smallest detail in the placement, height and dimensions of the city’s buildings, which were replicated to scale with the help of images from Google Earth.
This tiny town site plays an important role in helping Canadian soldiers learn the ins and outs of modern urban warfare, including training them to position troops and vehicles effectively in an urban core.
Instead of the past practice of conducting training exercises in the actual downtown core (with City Council ensuring that citizens were well-advised that there would be soldiers on foot with maps and notepads in the streets for a day of tactical training), scenarios can now be replicated accurately using the Fredericton model in a so-called “cloth model” exercise.
A “cloth model” exercise is a war game event conducted on a table, on the ground or on paper to practice particular maneuvers, battles or missions. The 3D models enhance those tactical discussions and have the added geometric advantage of being able to build accurate scale models of the environments in which soldiers train.
Downtown Fredericton has been rendered in exact proportion to its actual buildings on one of four 3D printers currently operating at the Tactics School ALSC in the Combat Training Centre at 5th Division Support Group Gagetown.
As the stated requirements of Defence Renewal challenge the Army to do more with less and more efficiently, 3D printers are among the most innovative workhorses making that goal possible.
The printers are currently at work 24/7 to produce tiny replicas of vehicles, firearms and training aids on an “as-needed” basis, processing orders submitted from various schools, training centres and units within the Canadian Army.
For example, a model portable bridge has been created to demonstrate to combat engineers the steps required to successfully put together a real bridge over a rushing river. Another model might show vehicle technicians how many bolts are needed and where to put them to repair a specific vehicle component.
The 3D printers are useful for providing training aids for various aspects of technical training. For example, vehicle and weapons technician training is greatly enhanced through the inclusion of 3D models of parts, assemblies and items that may be too fragile or expensive to use in classroom instruction.
The manageable size of the little models allows soldiers to handle the parts and become familiar with connectivity and part placement on a small scale. In a real-life scenario, they will have a leg up on exactly what parts are needed, and they will already be aware of some of the challenges they are going to encounter when they put equipment together in the field.
After the initial investment in the printers, the operating costs and materials are the only additional expenses required to keep the machines producing miniature models, or assets. Those assets include miniature tanks, LAVs and Coyotes that are set up in the model of downtown Fredericton to train soldiers how to position troops and vehicles effectively in an urban core.
The ALSC is generally a hotbed of technological advances and innovation. Not only is it maximizing the efficiency of training exercises, but there is an inherent efficiency and economy in the ability to reuse and repurpose assets that are created in-house. The savings from this capacity alone is dramatic compared to what it would cost to outsource the production of assets, including software, outside the centre.
The innovation doesn’t stop there. The ALSC has created an internship program with the Province of New Brunswick and their crown corporation the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC). Each year, the Department of National Defence (DND) and NBCC recruit the best community college graduates in their respective fields, and offer them an opportunity to participate in the ALSC intern program.
The interns are skilled in various capabilities and include 3D developers, animators, graphic artists, photographers/videographers, IT support specialists and administrative team members. Recent projects have included a detailed 3D rendering of the inside of a Leopard 2 tank complete with moving parts. Another is an animation of divers in dry suits jumping into a hole cut into an ice-covered lake. The graphic design interns get valuable work experience and work references in a fast-paced and rapidly developing industry, and in return, the Army obtains intellectual property that can be used over and over again.
Accessible only to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members, the Army Knowledge Environment (AKE) is an online library where the assets produced in the ALSC are posted. The AKE is an information-rich website where CAF members can log in with a user name and password from anywhere around the world. Like any other group of students, they can prepare for upcoming exams, review the assembly and disassembly of weapons and review pre-programmed combat scenarios as preparation for live-fire exercises or actual operations.
The capabilities that currently exist at the ALSC are only a fraction of what can be expected to be developed in future. The Royal Canadian Navy is interested and has come calling with orders, as has the Royal Canadian Air Force. “”The only limiting factor,”” says Maj Batty, “”is the ability of the school, training centre, leader or instructor to ‘think outside the box’ and articulate the training need.””
By transforming DND into a more efficient and effective organization through the innovative use of technology, all branches of the CAF will be better positioned to meet their future missions, including humanitarian assistance, combat and peace support at home in Canada, within North America and around the world.