Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgents Should Consider A "Fabrication Cell"

A few years ago, a bunch of smart guys at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms decided to teach a new course and open it up to any student -- not just engineering and computer science types. The course was called "How To Make (Almost) Anything." The instructors had developed a suite of off-the-shelf equipment that, when worked by those with a modicum of training, could enable students to quite literally make almost anything. They called it a "FabLab." The equipment and materials for one such Fablab cost around $20,000, and included such capabilities as the ability to print circuit boards, injection-mold plastic, and cut and fashion materials to exact tolerances. One of the professors, Neil Gershenfeld, went on to describe how the phenomenon played out in a book entitled FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop: From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. Essentially, the professors were surprised to find that a large number of those interested in the course had nothing to do with traditional disciplines involved in designing and making stuff. Gershenfeld took his Fablabs on the road to a variety of settings -- a low-income neighborhood in Boston, developing areas in South Africa, Costa Rica, and India, and other places such as Norway. He discovered that with a tiny bit of instruction, even people with no engineering backgrounds were able to conceive of and create a number of devices and contraptions to enhance their lives in one way or another. These ranged from the MIT student who created an alarm clock with wheels that had to be chased around the room in order to be turned off, to farmers in India who created a variety of means to better monitor their dairy production.

Ultimately, Gershenfeld envisions not a roomful of equipment, but a single machine that might sit on your desktop and be able to "print" complex objects in 3D. But this is far down the road and far removed from our concerns here . . .

What does this have to do with counterinsurgency?

For now, consider the implications of the fact that a suite full of inexpensive machines -- say between $5,000 and $25,000 in cost -- can be used to fabricate just about anything, given a little training on the machines and a good bit of ingenuity.

Who might be able to use such a setup? Consider who is . . .

a) frequently called upon to create creative solutions to unusual problems?

b) frequently located in areas of the world far removed from regular resupply of just about everything?

c) often comprised of a number of natural tinkerers?

Perhaps now you can see where this is heading. Seems like any of the following might have good use for a "Fablab" as described by Gershenfeld:

-military engineers, such as Marine Combat Engineers or Navy Seabees

-Civil Affairs folks

-regular infantry and other combat units deployed to austere environments at the end of a long supply chain

-Special Operations Forces personnel who frequently have to fend for themselves in underdeveloped locales.

Consider the infantry example (the easiest one for me to imagine since it's what I do). What if, in addition to a company intelligence cell, made up of a handful of Marines whose primary or collateral duty is to spot enemy patterns and relationships, there was also a "Fixit" or "Fabrication" or "Manufacturing" cell at the company level, comprised of a handful of Marines who have a penchant for tinkering, building, fixing, etc., and outfitted with the equipment mentioned above. What sorts of things might it come up with? Here are some possibilities:

a) Mods to existing equipment: Ground combat types love to play with their gear and figure out new and better ways to make it do what it needs to, or to meet new requirements -- hold something else in a certain way, mount something here, fasten something there, and so forth. A "Fabrication Cell" could easily develop such solutions.

b) Stand-ins for the supply chain: I doubt that a Fabrication Cell would be able to recreate major end items from scratch, but its worth considering how they might be able to make the teeth less reliant upon the tail. End-using units could probably create a number of solutions for items that the supply chain either doesn't have or that take a very long time to arrive.

c) Reconstruction: One of the frequent complaints about reconstruction in Iraq is that the focus is on large-scale, big ticket items that take forever, have an astronomical cost, and have little immediate impact on the daily lives of most Iraqis. This is an area that begs for decentralization. A company-level Fabrication Cell would be well-positioned to repair or create a number of kinds of local infrastructure, whether power generators, wells, irrigation machines, milking devices, incubators, air conditioners, or other such items that help keep the populace happy and on our side, instead of the insurgents'.

d) Mission-specific products or solutions: In February, The Wall Street Journal carried the interesting story of the development of a portable fingerprint scanner for use by US troops in Iraq.

This is a story of can-do in a no-can-do world, a story of how a Marine officer in Iraq, a small network-design company in California, a nonprofit troop-support group, a blogger and other undeterrable folk designed a handheld insurgent-identification device, built it, shipped it and deployed it in Anbar province. They did this in 30 days, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15. Compared to standard operating procedure for Iraq, this is a nanosecond.
If you read the article, you quickly learn that the hardest part of this entire venture -- a great story, by the way -- was getting the darn thing shipped to Iraq once it had been conceived of and produced. How much easier would this be if one could merely email the plans and specs to Iraq and have it created on the spot?


This all might make for one of the stranger ideas to have been floated here on SWJ, but it seems like there's something there waiting to be exploited. My rifle platoon of reservists contains a mechanical engineering major, an electrical engineer, a number of welders, auto aficionados, and construction experts. Seems we're only a step or two away from having an in-house Fabrication Cell already . . .

Captain Manchester serves with 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines.


I would not be surprised if the military has things close to this in a number of places. For example, naval ships used to have machine shops, electronics shops and other sorts of fab capabilities. Army and A/F maintenance depots (field deployed) may very well have similar capabilities.

Probably the most important capabilities would be the ability to do all sorts of things will all sorts of metal. Notice the field improvised HumVee armor that appeared in Iraq as soon as the use of IEDs became common.

Second to metal, electronics is of critical importance. Unfortunately, semiconductor fabs don't fit in the category of cheap and portable, but printed circuit boards can be made easily. A shop with a good supply of parts could make useful goodies, especially if they had general purpose embedded microcomputer chips and someone to program them. It doesn't take a college degree to do either, although the enlisted ranks of the military these days have plenty of those also.

Yeah, at that cost level, the only reason you don't have one yet is you haven't bothered. I bet you could yet some prosperous engineer supporters to pick up the cost in a snap. What's the holdup?


Fri, 07/06/2007 - 1:34pm

I agree with legion. As I e-mailed Josh last night there are several applications here that could be explored with particular emphasis on 'reconstruction'.

Moreover, the Reserve component could probably take something like this and run with it considering that many units bring 'hard' civilian skill sets to the table.

Not to take away from the regulars - lots of innovation takes place amongst our <i><b>strategic corporals</i></b> - both regular and reservist.


legion (not verified)

Fri, 07/06/2007 - 12:20pm

Excellent idea! Combat engineers and special ops engaged in "hearts and minds" should find many uses. I would expect to see a lot of imaginative and lateral thinking solutions from front line troops that the civilian world would never imagine.

Rapid fab machines are readily available for under $10K. They are becoming very portable, so watch them closely or they'll "walk off." They can still be a bit tricky to service, though.

The really big opportunity is just around the corner, with molecular fabs and synth-bio fabs. I'd like to see front line troops involved in developing apps for these new tools.