U.S. Military Poised to Capitalize on 3-D Printing

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Soldiers in US Army Special Forces uniform
With patents expiring, intellectual property declining, crowdfunded projects drawing attention and competition heating up, many in the 3-D print industry believe that 2015 will be a breakout year. Printer sales are expected to double in 2015 to more than 217,000. One industry already making strides in 3-D printing is the military.


The Army uses a candy bar as an example. The Department of Defense recently funded a test of how 3-D printing might help soldiers in the field. "In the confectionery industry, they are printing candies and chocolates," said Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. Some companies are actually considering 3-D printing meat or meat alternatives based on plant products that contain the protein found in meat."

She said that 3-D printing could cut down on food waste. "We're interested in maybe printing food that is tailored to a soldier's nutritional needs and then applying another novel process to render it shelf-stable, if needed."


Burns account for 30 percent of military injuries, and 3-D printing of skin cells onto burn wounds is approaching clinical trials. "Skin bioprinting would provide a scalable form of personalized medicine "for victims -- especially those with severe burns that do not have enough healthy skin remaining for skin harvesting" said Dr. Michael Romanko, a doctor working with the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Wake Forest University is researching other types of 3-D printed cells to heal wounds.

Weaponry and Equipment

The world's first 3-D printed metal gun and the first Tornado jet fighter flying with 3-D printed components are two major steps in defense weaponry. Today, the field is burgeoning with next-level concepts that include printed antennas that could go directly onto helmets or clothing to track individual soldiers. There are also hopes for units to be able to print in the field to repair vehicles.

Warheads are also under research: 3-D printing allows warheads to go beyond the usual size and shape restrictions faced in manufacturing with new and expanded. While it is far from synonymous with safety, the Army believes 3-D printing can improve in the area, even in blasts.

As U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center materials engineer James Zunino explained to author Timothy Rider, "Once you get into detonation physics, you open up a whole new universe. The real value you get is you can get more safety, lethality or operational capability from the same space."

The Next Wave: 4-D Printing

And then there's 4-D printed objects, which can change when printing is complete.

While 4-D printing could theoretically change various landscapes of the military, one aspect garnering much of the public and media attention is personnel uniforms. Adaptive uniforms adjust to changing surroundings. Could 4-D printed uniforms also protect people from shrapnel, debris and bullets?

In 2013, the Army granted $855,000 to three scientists to develop materials. Principal investigator Anna Balazs explained that, "by integrating our abilities to print precise, three-dimensional, hierarchically-structured materials; synthesize stimuli-responsive components; and predict the temporal behavior of the system, we expect to build the foundation for the new field of 4-D printing."
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