US military invests in 3D printing
on the frontline


US army, image from Shutterstock

News: the US military is developing its own 3D printers for the frontline which will enable soldiers to quickly and cheaply produce spare parts for their weapons and equipment.

By bringing the new technology to the battlefield, troops will be able to produce spare parts for sensitive equipment, such as GPS receivers and air drones, without having to wait weeks for new deliveries.

"Parts for these systems break frequently, and many of them are produced overseas, so there's a long lead time for replacement parts," said operations research analyst D. Shannon Berry in a statement.

"Instead of needing a massive manufacturing logistics chain, a device that generates replacement parts is now small and light enough to be easily carried in a backpack or on a truck," he added.

The Future Warfare centre at Space and Missile Defense Command in Alabama has been developing its own 3D printers as an alternative to the more expensive printers available commercially. Early versions of its printer have cost just under $700 each, compared to at least $2,000 for commercial models.

The 3D printers are now being rolled out to the frontline in shipping containers that act as mobile production labs. The first of the $2.8m labs, which contains 3D printers and CNC machines to make parts from aluminium, plastic and steel, was sent to Afghanistan in July this year. While there are no plans to print weapons from scratch, the labs could produce spare parts to repair them, according to Pete Newell, head of the US army's Rapid Equipping Force.

The military developments mirror similar advances claimed by amateur gun enthusiasts in recent months, with a group of libertarian activists in the US releasing blueprints for 3D printed weapons, while another hobbyist announced the successful firing of a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle using 3D-printed parts.

Following that news, Ronen Kadushin, a pioneer of the open design movement, told Dezeen that advances in 3D printing could allow people to "print ammunition for an army". "Nobody will kill anybody with a 3D printed gun soon, I hope. But in the future, you don’t know," he warned.

The technology has also been taking off in civilian manufacturing, with President Obama investing $30m of government money in a national 3D printing centre in Youngstown, Ohio this August. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute is part of a military-led public-private partnership to research the possibilities of mass-producing machine parts.

We've been covering the latest developments in 3D printing as the technology proliferates through the design world. In a recent interview with Dezeen, Janne Kyttanen, co-founder of design studio Freedom of Creation and creative director of 3D printer company 3D Systems, predicted that consumers would soon be able to save money by printing products at home rather than shopping for them, while MakerBot Industries CEO and co-founder Bre Pettis told Dezeen that cheap 3D printers would place manufacturing back in the home, as it was before the industrial revolution.

See all our stories about 3D printing »

Photograph is from Shutterstock.

  • Nee-no

    Good good. Killing and maiming gets a timely boost.

    • Mario

      Yeah, they might just need a new war somewhere to test it. Let’s see: they already did Asia, Europe, Russia, Middle East. Hard one… perhaps Canada or Madagascar?

  • jjb

    Can't wait to buy online and print my next Apple products.

  • pionimero

    Interesting. If we look at the history good inventions and technologies have their origin for supplying wars. Just think about Internet, concrete or the radar. In this case, 3D printing came first.

    • Dan

      Hate to burst your bubble but concrete was not a war invention. It was being used by the Romans as a building material that had nothing to do with war and reinforced concrete was an architectural development. The Internet was not developed by the US army – that’s a popular urban myth. Radar was developed initially as a maritime safety device to detect ships in thick fog, albeit by a Russian naval officer in the 1890’s. So really it’s just a continuation of a theme of the military adapting technologies to suit a specific purpose.

      • Nate

        Origin for supplying wars. Concrete roads allowed faster troop movement. Internet greatly increased intel and communications. The radar, well that’s self explanatory.

  • alex

    I wonder what this will do to weapon producing countries like Sweden and others, which make most of their money from warfare industry.

  • efs

    And this is a good thing Dezeen?

    • dr robin

      It’s interesting, isn’t it? This is meant to be a forum for innovation and design progress. Rapid prototyping just got a rubber stamp of approval from a massive, guaranteed, well-funded market. Cue massive amounts of development! That is news and is better placed on here than many things. Don’t hate the players – hate the game.

  • boriskajmak

    It’s great! The mad militants are going to develop, whatever peace-loving people say. At least when they develop something like this it will be widely spread within a couple of years or less. Then it’s up to us to steal their “weapon” and show that it can be used for better purposes.

  • ole Blakte

    Why is it that when an event such as 3D printing of gun parts hits the news, there are so many negative replies? If you read almost any news events, you get a good synopsis of the people who read it simply by reading the comments. New technology brings jobs, no matter what the industry. And if folks would concentrate their thoughts on how to use this technology for the improvement of living instead of looking at how good or bad this is, then we might learn how to get along a lot better. I love the idea of 3D printing; I don’t have to use it to make gun parts. I can print model airplanes for kids to play with.

  • JDS

    Attention mindless Liberals: the world is a dangerous place. If it was not for the US military, you would all be speaking German.

    • efs

      We'd be speaking Russian.

    • blah

      It’s dangerous because there are so many nutters with guns, giving the US yet more guns is only going to help the US with its “f*ck the rest of the world” policies.

  • James Dyson

    The single biggest issue here is that “increased efficiency” it brings. This actually eliminates 50% of the high-tech manufacturing jobs we need so badly – like NC programming and CNC machining. In my shop, this would reduce staff by 40% – and what do those people do in this crazy job market?

    I don’t think the disruptive effects of 3D printing have been thought through logically, but it is coming just like a freight train due to the drive for more earnings and less overhead.

  • Dan

    My main question is, “What doesn’t the US army invest in?”

    Just to show what I mean, the most current statistic that I can think of is that Halo 4 (from launch until this week I believe) made in sales an amount equal to what the US army spends to maintain the troops in Afghanistan in one day.

  • I think it would be a brilliant idea to invest in a 3D printer large enough to print coffins.

  • Alex

    It may cost some manufacturing jobs, but what of the thought that it may make it cheap enough to manufacture parts here again for certain things? And besides that, it will help keep engineering here as we can reduce cycles for prototyping.

  • JohnS

    Ever since it appeared for the first time, I saw a real potential in 3D printing. I would not be amazed if, someday, they will be able to print bone structures (or something like that) to aid the wounded soldiers.

  • Emma

    Dezeen, I’m wondering why you are talking about producing weapons next to inspiring projects and creations?