What might the U.S. Army use 3D printing for? Everything

As the number of materials 3D printers are compatible with grows, so do the applications. And the U.S. Army knows that: It is considering using the emerging technology for applications as diverse as feeding soldiers and building weapons.

The most recent issue of the Army Technology magazine says the military branch is currently researching 3D printing the following:

  • Parts to build or repair tools
  • Weapons like guns and warheads
  • Skin and other organs
  • Prototypes
  • Medical equipment
  • Food for soldiers
  • Clothing, armor and gear
  • 3D models

The applications are a mix of scary, life-saving and downright mundane. 3D printing can make it easier to build a warhead or gun, but also faster and simpler to quickly refine them because it is so suited to prototyping.

But innovations like printing patches of skin for injured soldiers are revolutionary, and army researchers’ work could quickly find its way into civilian hospitals as well. 3D printing food and clothing could allow for more interesting dining options and gear that fits each soldier’s unique shape.

3D printing could also be useful to the army for the same reason it will be useful to astronauts on the International Space Station: In locations that are remote or lacking infrastructure, parts for repairs or to meet an unexpected challenge can be difficult to come by. 3D printing would allow soldiers to design and print whatever they need much more quickly than if they had to wait for a shipment or improvise.

The magazine lists cutting down on general shipping expenses as another benefit. Instead of waiting for a plant in the U.S. to manufacture a part and then ship it halfway around the world, local bases can print what they need when they need it.

While the technology to print weapons, prototypes and parts already exists, it will take longer to develop printed food and clothing. It’s possible today to print a basic meal or outfit, but the textures have yet to be perfected. Food tends to be too pasty and clothing too dependent on plastic. But printing skin is already a surprisingly mature technology; the Army is preparing to put it through clinical trials.

Whether you think it is scary, groundbreaking or both, the U.S. Army’s investments in these 3D printing areas are sure to drive its development and adoption in other industries in the U.S. The National Institutes of Health is looking into bioprinting right now too. I would love to see the Army’s work make a difference for civilian patients as well.