3D printing will be used to optimise US army operations, from weaponry to medicine and even food, according to a special issue of Army Technology.
Though only a small fraction of the US military’s exorbitant budget is allocated to research and development, the department promises grow on-site technology capabilities whilst also cutting costs. How? 3D Printing.
The Army’s partnerships with private enterprise, as well as federally funded tech initiatives, have put the organisation at the cutting edge of digital manufacturing.
Dale Ormond, Director of Research and Development, said: “Imagine the possibilities of three-dimensional printed textiles, metals, integrated electronics, biogenetic materials and even food. Army researchers are exploring the frontiers of an exciting technology.”
Here is how they are doing that:
Six months ago, 3D Systems unveiled the world’s first 3D food-printer at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and the military intends to capitalise on this development.
Food scientists at the US Army Natick Solider Research, Development and Engineering Centre are investigating the 3D applications of food processing and product development.
The technology will eventually allow not only for a more varied menu for soldiers, but will also be able to provide particular nutrients for those who require it.
Mary Scerra, a US Army food scientist based at MIT, said: “Say you were on a difficult mission and you expended different nutrients… a printer could print according to what your needs were at that time.”
3D printers can use metal alloy materials, not just the plastics widely used for DIY internet projects.
“In theory, if you have a certified operator, certified materials and a certified printer, you can make qualified parts,” said James Zunino, a materials engineer for the Army.
They are current compiling data on the structural differences between machine made and printed parts, and there’s an expectation that 3D printing will serve to manufacture specialty tools, custom parts and replacements for obsolete parts to soldiers in the field, especially those in remote locations.
And then there’s the warheads; “3D printing of warheads will allow us to have better design control and utilise geometries and patterns that previously could not be produced or manufactured,” Zunino told Vice.
This one is about the regenerative possibilities of bioprinting.
Dr Thomas Russel, Director of the Army Research Lab said: “For soldiers, there are some medical benefits. Many of the injuries soldiers receive in the field are not traditional. A lot of the medical community sees this as a new approach to medicine. We can 3D scan injuries.”
Skin repair is the most robust focus area, with Dr Michael Romanko saying: “The scars that solider develop as a result of burns constrict movement and disfigure them permanently. The initiative to restore skin that is elastic and complete with sweat glands, appropriate pigmentation and hair follicles is incredible important.”
The Ministry of Defence commented that while there may be fringe development of 3D printing technology, it is not widely used and certainly not in conventional forces.