The Marines want self-repairing smart trucks

In the not-too-distant future, Marine Corps 7-ton trucks may be able to diagnose worn-out parts before they go bad, put in an order for a relevant replacement, and get the part 3D printed and shipped to their location to be installed — all without a human in the loop.

It’s an aspiration that illustrates the possibilities of smart logistics, said Lt. Gen. Michael Dana, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics. And the process has already begun to make it a reality.

In the fall of 2016, Marines at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri equipped about 20 military vehicles, including Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements, known as MTVRs or 7-tons, and massive tractor-trailers known as Logistics Vehicle System Replacements, or LVSRs, with engine sensors designed to anticipate and identify key parts failures.

It’s a commercially available technology that some civilian vehicles already use, but it’s a new capability for Marine Corps trucks. Testing on those sensors will wrap-up this summer, and officials with I&L will assess how accurately and thoroughly the sensors captured and transmitted maintenance data.

A Logistics Vehicle System Replacement at work. DoD Photo by Lance Cpl. Joey Holeman

A Logistics Vehicle System Replacement at work. (DoD Photo by Lance Cpl. Joey Holeman)

If all goes well, the Marines then will work to connect the sensors with an automatic system that can order parts that will then be 3D printed on demand and delivered to the vehicle’s unit.

“How do we use that data and how do we link that back to our fabrication or supply network to make the system operate in theory without a person in the loop, to make sure we’re doing push logistics [versus] pull logistics,” said Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, a senior member of the Marine Corps’ logistics innovation team and the service’s additive manufacturing lead.

“Now we have the part there waiting when the vehicle gets back in from the convoy, or it’s already there a week in advance before we know we need to change it out. So that’s the concept and that’s what we’re going to try to prove with that.”

Dana, who spoke with Military.com in June, is eager to bypass maintenance supply chains that sometimes have gear traveling thousands of miles to get to a unit downrange, and inefficient logistics systems that create lag while maintainers wait for parts to arrive.

“If we had the ability to print a part far forward, which we have that capability, that reduces your order-to-ship time. And you then combine that with what we call sense-and-respond logistics, or smart logistics, which is … it can tell you with a predictive capability that this part is going to fail in the next 20 hours or the next ten hours,” Dana said.

3D Printing. Photo by Jonathan Juursema.

3D Printing. (Photo by Jonathan Juursema.)

The goal of having trucks that can do everything but self-install repair parts is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ newfound love affair with innovative technology. The Corps recently became the first military service to send 3D printers to combat zones with conventional troops, so that maintainers could print everything from 81mm mortar parts to pieces of radios in hours, instead of waiting days or longer for factory-made parts to arrive.

For Dana, it’s simply time for the Marine Corps to cash in on technologies that industry is already using to its advantage.

“You look at Tesla, their vehicles literally get automatic upgrades; it’s almost like a vehicle computer that’s driving around,” he said. “My wife’s [2006 Lexus] will tell you when it’s due for an oil change. That predictive capability exists in the private sector. Hopefully we can incorporate it on the military side.”

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