Military Applications of 3D Printing

Serving the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and National Guard

September 11, 2015, by D.M. McCauley The attribute consistent of all successful fighting forces is the ability to adapt. For as long as man has waged war, great military campaigns have hinged on the capability of their leader to adapt and overcome.

Napoleon foolishly invaded Russia utilizing the same tactics and logistic techniques that had been successful in more favorable circumstances. Winter set in, passage became nearly impossible, and supplies dwindled. Much of his defeat rests upon poor logistics and the failure to alter his tactics to suit the Russian campaign.

Intricate and thorough planning is vital to a successful campaign. For much of our past, there were no second chances if you miscalculated the necessary munitions, equipment, and rations. Advances in transportation alleviated the logistic burden, but did not completely remove it. This paradigm has finally shifted with the advent of sophisticated and accurate 3D printing.

The U.S. Militarys solution? The Expeditionary Lab Mobile (ELM). This evolution of 3D Printing technology allows U.S. Military forces to rapidly print and deploy adaptive responses to challenging battlefield conditions. Many Defense experts have turned a hopeful eye toward the possibilities, while understanding the inherent risks. One such expert is Damien Van Puyvelde, the Assistant Professor of Security Studies at theUniversity of Texas at El Paso.

Special Forces, deployed in far-away countries, will welcome the ability to manufacture their own weapons to satisfy pressing operational needs,Puyvelde wrote. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Department of Defense has already launched a pilot program to explore the possibilities of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

Has a vital piece of equipment been destroyed or lost? Print a new one. This technology has already been utilized by the U.S. Military in combat zones since 2013 via theU.S. ArmyRapid Equipping Force (REF).

One specific advantage is that it allows soldiers to acquire parts and equipment they would otherwise not possess the skill to produce. Even if that individual lacks the technical expertise, the schematic is already in the database. All they need to do is press print.

But where will 3D Printing head in the future? Rapid Prototyping will progressively become more portable with a higher degree of accuracy. Here are a few of the specific applications:

In August of 2014, theArmyTechnology Magazinefeatured an articlethat detailed the creation of a candy bar using a 3D printer. It mentions several forward thinking concepts. With 3D printing, it is now possible for customizable rations to be created on demand. It can contain the specific dietary and taste requirements of that particular soldier and ensure that nothing is wasted. It would be created using ingredients brought along or acquired on site, but such advancements are not ready yet.

One of the most intriguing advancements is the concept of 3D printed synthetic skin. This will soon be enteringclinical trialsat Wake Forest University. Considering that nearly 30% of all injuries to U.S. military forces are burns, this will provide another way to heal our wounded and help them regain their physical andemotional quality of life. 3D printed prosthetics, heart valves, and replacement organs are also being researched and developed.

The most obvious application of this technology is the waging of war itself. Besides traditional firearms and body armor, it also introduces the possibility of complexly designed explosives and warheads. Though it is utilized in many unrelated and peaceful applications, the technology has spurred its own share of controversy amid fears of homemade firearms and explosive devices. Despite the limitations of non-industrial and military-grade printers, 3D printing stands poised to rewrite everything we know about thefuture of warfareand manufacturing.

The primary challenging factor in future developments will be the materials in which they will be printed. More tests are needed to ascertain the durability and practicality of widespread usage given the layer-by-layer printing technique. Whatever the outcome, what may not be feasible today could be within another five years. Many original 3D printing patents that existed from the 1980s haveexpired in the past year. This will likely prove a boon to the burgeoning printing community as developers continue to experiment and thrive.

Author: D.M. McCauley is a former U.S. Navy sailor who worked in Intel. After the service he has dedicated his time to writing aboutveterans affairs and military studies. He enjoys painting and traveling with his significant other.

Photo Credit: 3D Printed Military Helmet Oskar Varland at Halmstad Hgskola

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