The history of innovation in technology is tied (for better or worse) to the history of the military. In just a century aviation has advanced from the Wright Brothers to UAV’s and supersonic planes, due in large part to the development of military aircraft.
An Even Shorter History
Additive Manufacturing (AM) is the technical term for 3D printing. It started in 1981 with various companies in Japan and France patenting early SLS type machines. In 1984 Chuck Hull developed the .stl file format now commonly used for 3D printing. The aviation and automotive industry quickly adapted AM for rapid prototyping and customizing parts.
With the RepRap line of open-source desktop printers, 3D printing has exploded in to the consumer market. The newest generation of STEM – educated children have quickly embraced 3D printing and are using it frequently in schools and home.
In just 35 short years, 3D printing has gone from an expensive industrial machines to domestic use. It is only natural that a technology so versatile could find its way into the military. Here is how it can be used and is currently being used in the armed forces.
Of all the applications, protecting soldiers is something that all people can agree on. In 2015 the US armed services opened most of its combat positions to women. However,most of the body armor in stock is designed for men only.
This means that women deployed with current equipment may go into combat with armor that may be too big for them, or not fit right for their movement. Not only is this uncomfortable, it can interfere with their performance, or possibly open up holes in their armor.
With 3D printing companies like Mark Forge 3D printing in Kevlar, it may already be possible to 3D print combat rated armor.
In the future, the military can train soldiers with standard issue male and female armor. For front line soldiers, they can be deployed to the battle field with more customized 3D printed armor that fits the soldier better. This will give the front-line soldier armor that is comfortable and matches battle conditions.
For any military, having spare parts on hand can make the difference between a mobile force or target practice.
The military currently relies on extensive logistic chains that connect the quartermaster to the front line. Those logistical chains are the frequent target of IED’s and ambushes in Iraq & Afghanistan.
But what if soldiers could carry the tools necessary in their convoys or forward operating bases to make the spare parts that they need on site?
By having a portable 3D printing system the unit could print parts on demand, instead of waiting for the next convoy.
As printing speeds improve, it will be possible to field print large spare parts in a couple of hours instead of waiting for a replacement.
Already DARPA and the Navy have put 3D printers to work in fabrication labs (fab lab) at shipping yards.
3D printing is making faster leaps forward in custom medicine that any other field of 3D printing.
It is in 3D bio printing there is the greatest potential to save soldiers as well as civilian lives.
University of Wakefield has already started 3D printing human tissues. Others are focusing on bio printing.
For soldiers, this can literally be a lifesaver. The military of the future can have the tissue samples of all soldiers ready to be cloned and used for bio printing. If a soldier is wounded, they can have cloned skin, mussel, and organs bio printed to heal war wounds. Likewise skull plates can be quickly prepared from a stored x-ray scan of the soldier.
The military can also 3D print medical devices for humanitarian services. In war-torn countries and disaster areas, supply chains are chaotic at best. A 3D printer on site would be invaluable in rebuilding infrastructure and supporting medical needs.
Already 3D printing is used with groups like Field Ready that provide 3D printers and medical equipment to disaster areas.
Future military’s could follow the same path, bringing 3D printers into refugee camps to print needed medical supplies and humanitarian parts.
Already 3D printing is being used to make a cheaper missile.
By 3D printing missile parts on site, it is far cheaper and safer to do than to ship missile components around the world.
You can also make just the number of missiles you need, instead of storing and guarding large bunkers full of them on base.
In the future 3D printing will not only simplify logistics, but it will also make the missiles much easier to have a custom weapons payload. Imagine targeting a single building with a weapons charge just big enough to destroy the building while minimizing collateral damage. You could also 3D printing a charge capable of piercing thick reinforced concrete bunkers.
In all, 3D printing can simplify military logistics. 3D printing can also contribute to military medicine, or provide valuable humanitarian outreach. Even though 3D printing can be used for weapons, the uses in non-combat roles will far outweigh their uses in combat.