DON’T CLICK OUT YET, I know this type of article is a bit clichéd and usually points out the dangers of 3D printing (i.e. the power to create anything). But, this is not the case here, at all.
3D Printing can create anything. Thus it is no surprise that the military (especially the United States’ one) already utilizes it, and has already made several breakthroughs. Here is a compiled list of all the uses that the military has found, up to date, for 3D Printing (plus some other possibilities for it in the end).
Okay, we cannot print a War Machine or Iron Man suit, yet, or an exoskeleton, but there are also interesting and noteworthy uses.
I am pretty sure that while researching this I got into an NSA watch list.
1. Guns & Gun Parts
Of course every article about the military uses of 3D printing should start with 3D Printable weaponry. Plus, we have gone a long way since that one 3D Printable gun that has been floating around the web. Now, we can print full-fledged and working AR-15 rifles (or, at least, modifications of it, including parts of the main body and firing mechanism), and a 1911 semi-automatic pistol.
It is fascinating how designers and engineers managed to handle the pressures and temperatures that occur during the firing of a bullet with materials similar to Lego bricks.
2. Soldier equipment
We use 3D Printing to repair stuff all the time, be that cars, watches, you name it. Why would the military not do exactly the same thing? Instead of waiting for a new car part or helmet mount or any add-on, they can just print it; always assuming that plastic is a suitable substitute.
Yes, this is a thing. Though I am not sure whether they are used by the actual military, they are here and they work. Simple 9mm 3D Printed bullets can go supersonic with the right amount of gunpowder, stay in one piece, until they hit their target at least, and are fairly accurate, considering they are made of plastic on a low-end 3D FDM Printer. If you need to see it for yourselves, here is a video.
Recent news from Russia: In June they unveiled their first 3D Printed Surveillance drone. It was not only a static model, but it was the one that can fly in an operational radius of 50km. It weighs 1.8 kg, takes 1 day to print and 20 minutes to assemble. For the military, using such a device before a mission execution, surveillance, or tactical espionage, is a no brainer. It is very cheap, very light, and extremely disposable and re-buildable. Note that such a drone is a first because it follows the design style of the “Predator” UAV. Partially 3D Printed drones have already seen and are currently seeing wide use within and outside military contexts.
What if, instead of sending people to scan an area, deal with a hostage situation, or defusing a bomb, we could send a robot? And what if that robot can be 3D Printed? (Its skeleton at least, the electronics cannot, as of yet, be 3D Printed). Well, this can happen, and has already happened. While robots with such functions are not a new concept, idea, or invention, 3D Printable ones, like ones from Boston Dynamics.
I mean, we all have seen that one human-like robot we all can make and 3D print at home right? It is not that difficult to think that the military, that has many more millions to spend than any of us, could develop that concept even more and make a robot with skills comparable to those of humans.
This fact goes a bit into the “fantasy” territory of 3D Printing, along with printing with glass and printing entire houses, but it is here, and it is actually being used by the US military. The main idea is that instead of having to issue ready rations (MRE’s) that are standardized and identical for every soldier, their meals will be altered based on their preferences and their dietary needs. Note that this program is supposed to work with wearable physiology sensors, and thus create the ideal meal for each combatant. In my opinion, there ust also be some psychological reasons behind such investiments, that is, to make the soldiers feel more comfortable during overseas battles and reduce the possibility of what is called a “shell shock”.
These are the uses I can confirm, but there are other plausible uses that either the military is thinking of or have neglected, or my research was not extensive enough.
Be that wrenches, Darth Vaders, or Karambit knives, this is not such a crazy idea. One key factor in the effectiveness of any army or task force is the individual soldier’s psychology. Printing them something that may make them laugh or have a breath of good time while overseas will be sure to help him or her feel focused, concentrated, and not oppressed, foreign and depressed. Not that the army does not do a good enough job already, but every bit is important when it comes to psychology. It is in the little things.
Although plastic tools may be undermined by the military, as they have metal tools of their own, and they resemble Bob the Builder toys, they are surprisingly strong and effective. It would not be a problem if the files for them were in the computer or SD-card, just in case.
I am not an army specialist, and all I know about military reality are from videogames, movies and some documentaries. But, I presume that having a cheap decoy around can be useful, especially for the Navy that has to deal with SONAR and other echolocation technologies. I believe it would be prosperous for them to have 3D Printable decoys ready for any case. At any size, they are super-cheap and replaceable to make.
Of course there may be problems with this, like for example, how will it be launched without triggering any alarms, but it is still a cool concept to think about.
And that pretty much concludes my experience with 3D printing used in the military. If anyone has any further additions or information, please mention it in the comments, and it you would want me to add this to the article itself.
As a final thought, be aware when looking for such information around the web, because you never know who might be watching you.