First called additive manufacturing, 3D printing refers to the technology and processes that transform digital files into physical objects. The digital file might be created by scanning an existing object or by using design software. Software transmits instructions to the 3D printer, and the printer “prints” the object by adding layers of material until it produces a completed product. Typical materials used in 3D printing include metals and plastics, depending upon the application. I recently wrote about the potential for 3D printing to transform the chemical industry with innovative materials and formulations. This emerging technology also holds a lot of promise for the military and related logistics.
Military applications for 3D printing
The U.S. Army successfully 3D printed and fired both a grenade launcher and a grenade in May 2017. As long ago as 2014, the U.S. Navy installed this technology on ships to create spare parts for both the ships and for weapons carried onboard. In addition, both the Air Force and the Marine Corps have created policies to explore 3D printing for their own uses.
The military’s experience with 3D printing so far has highlighted a couple of key benefits:
- It can simplify logistics, because military units can transport just the technology and raw materials, rather than every conceivable spare part or weapon.
- Soldiers trained as technicians in 3D printing have been able to produce customized parts for unique situations or individuals.
Overall, the military wants to invest in this emerging technology because it can speed up the supply chain, reduce costs, and help make them more productive and battle-ready. Since some supplies may be invented in the field, it may also make the armed forces more innovative. In addition, 3D printing requires only the cheaper raw materials and not the finished products. Thus, the military may enjoy all of the benefits of 3D printing while reducing both their budgets and procurement times.
The military recognizes that they can’t use 3D printing for everything. For instance, some components may be too complex for the current technology. In addition, the design of some devices may still be the intellectual property of their designers, so they can’t legally be scanned and printed.